Thursday 30 April 2009

Mindless Pap of the Worst Kind

There seems to be something in the air, because this month has seen the release of not one but two inspid, uninspired, hackneyed, crappy, poorly executed fantasy spoof series - and the BBC has its hand in both of them. First up is Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, which is by all accounts godawful and which made me want to kill myself out of sheer boredom and hatred when I saw some clips of it on YouTube. And second is ElvenQuest, a "hilarious" programme on Radio 4 whose first episode aired today. To call it bad is perhaps unfair. Unfair to the concept of badness, that is. It was not only one of the worst radio programmes I've ever heard; it was flat out one of the worst things I've ever experienced. Ever. It wasn't so much that it didn't make me want to laugh; at times it actually made me think that I would never be able to laugh at anything ever again. Like sense of humour kryptonite.

I don't mind people spoofing fantasy - there's so much ammunition. But does it really have to be this unutterably terrible guff that the BBC is currently serving up?

Wednesday 29 April 2009

The Knowledge Economy and the New Cyberpunk

I was flicking through my old Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook again last night while listening to the football. Fascinating how different the world looked in the 80s. According to the timeline of the 'Night City' setting, there should by 2020 have been a nuclear apocalypse in Australia, a unification of Korea, a collapse of the United States, and a domination of the world economy by Japan and the EU. Meanwhile many events that were totally unexpected have occurred - in Cyberpunk 2020 the USSR is still a major power and China is still a Maoist backwater. (A lesson in epistemic arrogance if ever there was one.)

Of course, it's not really fair to criticise the predictions of a gang of RPG designers and cyberpunk novelists. They never made any claims to be soothsayers - or at least most of them didn't. But nowadays it seems incredible to think that people actually believed Japan would one day be the world's most important economy - especially if you know anything about the huge demographic nightmare which is fast approaching that country.

I have a friend who's something of an expert in economic migration, who did his PhD on the growing knowledge economies in places like Singapore, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. He was telling me over lunch about how the governments in those countries are attempting to create new economies based on human capital: essentially, because (in theory) anybody doing knowledge-based work can nowadays work from anywhere in the world (thanks to the internet), they are hoping that they can attract researchers, scientists, thinkers, from all over the world to live and do business on their territory. This is seen as the perfect developmental model for places like Mauritius, the Seychelles, even possibly Fiji and Cape Verde (not to mention tax havens like the Cayman Islands whose days are likely numbered).

In a future in which cyberspace is even more dominant than it is today, should we not be considering places like Singapore - high tech, agile, expert - to be the kings of the world? They'd be rich and advanced enough to employ armies of cyborgs and elite mercenary units to defend themselves; powerful enough in cyberspace to use it as a security tool and a weapon of war (teams of military programmers scouring the net and eliminating enemies with wetware); and insulated from crime and social decay by strict authoritarian government, communitarian values, and the sea. Food, material goods and menial labour would be imported from the developing world on vast oceangoing liners. Major corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo would set up home there, rather than the chaotic and violent North America or the politically unstable Latin America and Eurasia. These tiny islands, isolated high-tech paradises, would be the utopias of a dystopian world.

Nice beaches, too.

Monday 27 April 2009


I've been wanting for a long time to come up with a campaign setting for Cyberpunk 2020 - a kind of alternate history of the future. Nothing like as detailed or out-there as Sirlarkins' fantastic Rifts setting idea, but perhaps vaguely in that vein, imagining a world in which Something Big happened at some point in the 20th Century that radically changed the course of history.

I have a lot of nostalgia for nuclear apocalypse as a trope of sci-fi/fantasy. Perhaps it's because my generation was the last to grow up in a world in which it was a genuine possibility. (I vividly remember in primary school - probably at the age of about 10 - me and another kid were chosen to debate the advantages and disadvantages of spending tax income on Britain's Trident nuclear programme, compared to the NHS. Being 10 year old boys, we naturally came down on the side of Trident.) However, nuclear apocalypse is too decisive an event for a cyberpunk world; cyberpunk is about malaise, about decay, and about slow decline. A nuclear apocalypse is a watershed. In cyberpunk, there is no watershed - just a steady worsening.

I enjoyed the concept behind The Arabesk Trilogy, John Courtenay Grimwood's cyberpunk future, based in an Ottoman Empire which never fell. The execution was lacking (Grimwood, like Neal Stephenson, is one of those writers whose prose I actually actively dislike), but the idea was there. However, World War I what-ifs are a too familiar a point of deviation for alternate history, just like World War II and the American Civil War. There needs to be something less obvious and less obviously world changing. Subtle difference.

One possibility which I've often considered is that imperialism never failed. (I'm no imperialist, quite the opposite; but remember, this is about dystopia.) There is every reason to believe that it might not have, had the first and second world wars - its death knells - never happened. The major powers in the fin de siecle period were extraordinarily self-confident and strong, and ruled practically the entire globe. Without the wars, which broke down the great powers' economies and ushered in concepts such as human rights, that strength might have proved unshakeable and we might still live in a colonial world.

The key to all this is Austria-Hungary. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries two ideas were floating around Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his cronies, who were well aware of the problems which faced them (and which would eventually boil over with catastrophic consequences in Sarajevo in 1914). The first of these ideas was the complete reform of the Dual Monarchy into an entity known as the United States of Greater Austria - a federal state comprised of 15 separate autonomous entities for the various ethnic groups found within its borders. This may have served to satisfy the nascent nationalist movements within the empire - whose main complaint was lack of political representation - and placated terrorist groups such as the Black Hand. Hey presto! - no World War I.

The second idea was the elevation of the Kingdom of Croatia to the same level as Austria and Hungary - creating a Triple, rather than a Dual, monarchy. This would have been accompanied by greater regional autonomy within each of the three monarchies, and a far greater balance of power between all of the empire's ethnic groups.

The glory of alternate histories such as these is that they don't have to be particularly plausible. I have no idea if the United States of Greater Austria would ever have worked. All I need, however, is the knowledge that there was a slim chance it could. And then work from there.

Implications of this idea in another post sometime, maybe.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Societies of the Yellow City

The Yellow City is famous for its many cabals, societies, philosophical groups, and guilds of sages. Some of these are detailed below.

The Ipogo Philosophical School, mentioned here. This group aims to catalogue and categorise everything in existence, in order to create a new and more efficient language based on the fundamental properties of reality. They have at various times enjoyed patronage from the rich mercantile clans, and have grown wealthy and powerful from shrewd investments.

The Assemblage of Demarchists. This group, comprised entirely of slugmen, agitates for political reform - namely a governing council for the city with members randomly selected via lottery from the slugman populace. This form of democracy was long ago postulated by the political philosopher Fuhik Wè, who called it "democracy through sorting". The 'Sortitionists', as they are sometimes known, are considered little more than a nuisance by the powers-that-be.

The High Hunt. This secret society is said to be made up of some the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. Bored, debauched, and dissolute, they raid the crabman ghettos along the coast
for their own amusement, with the aim of cooking and eating whoever they can capture.

The Brotherhood of Celestial Interpretation. This group of human and slugmen sages study the stars and planets, believing that celestial movements influence the weather, tidal systems, and natural disasters. Their prophecising is currently much in vogue amongst the elite, and its members exert considerable influence over Yellow City politics.

The Clayshaper's Guild. Long outlawed, the practices of golem-making and re-animation have an ancient pedigree in the Yellow City. Its chief practitioners have grouped together into this loose federation, and in small clandestine meetings they discuss new techniques and methods. Rumour has it that its members have developed far beyond mere clay-shaping, and can now animate water, blood, light, and even the air itself.

The Blood of the Clam. There are dozens of gambling syndicates in the Yellow City, mostly focused around the practice of club-fighting. The Blood of the Clam is one of the biggest and richest. It achieved infamy some years ago when the son of one of the chief plutocrats of the Twelve Clans was found by the harbour with all of his fingers and limbs broken and a large clam's shell forced down his throat. His gambling debts were well known, and it is an open secret that The Blood of the Clam were responsible for his killing.

Friday 24 April 2009

The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth

This is one of my favourite of Zelazny's short stories. It's set in a futuristic, semi-terraformed Venus with mighty oceans, where extreme sportsmen chase after gargantuan fish. (Gargantuan as in, kilometers long.)

From this story stems my abiding love for huge monsters in large bodies of water. (Although I believe there is also some deep psychic human terror of the sea, the ocean, and big lakes, which makes the Sea Monster trope especially interesting and frightening. There's a reason why things slumbering at the bottom of the ocean are scarier than those slumbering underneath a mountain.)

The best huge-monster-in-large-body-of-water is of course the kraken.

Kraken in Yoon-suin are demigods, worshiped by the squid men of the Great Blue Reef. Many are hundreds of metres long. They drift through the ocean, feeding on anything they can find - insatiable, horribly intelligent, cruel. The innumerable prayers and sacrifices sent their way by the squid men give them energy and power, and they grow fat with divine puissance. They grant fear- and pain-causing spells to their followers, and delight in the destruction these powers cause. And sometimes, when the call is strong enough, they can be summoned to the coast to feast on their worshipers' enemies.

Thursday 23 April 2009


In a post the other day I mentioned that I liked settings with non-European influences. This is mainly because, like many people, I'm just sick to death of what have become the 'standard' fantasy tropes, and since those tropes are (superficially) European in flavour, the desire to get away from cliche manifests itself in a liking for things that are not European.

On reflection, this is a mistake. Actually, it's pretty stupid for two reasons. First, 'Europe' is historically a geographic entity and not a geopolitical one. Second, medieval Europe is as exotic to European people today as medieval Timbuktu. In fact, modern English people probably have more in common with people living in modern Timbuktu than they do with people who lived in 11th Century England.

This was brought home to me yesterday, when I was reading through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook - specifically, the Formula for Conducting the Ordeal of Boiling Water. In case you haven't read it, I'll summarise the gist: the ancestors of modern Germans used to decide the guilt of an accused man based on whether or not his hand was burned by being submerged in boiling water.

The other legal texts make for equally fascinating reading. We have rules for marriages between a freedwoman and a serf, on the sale of daughters as concubines, on the murder of slaves (punishable by two years of penance!) and on, er...what to do about Jewish people. This was another world, and to claim it wasn't exotic is utterly bizarre.

And on its outskirts, parts of Europe probably had more in common with other continents than they did with the supposed 'European culture'. Consider the Highland Scots, tribal and stratified along clan lines, who seemed to fit in better with the Creeks and Cherokee of North America than they did with their Lowland and English neighbours. The Hungarians - Central Asian nomads transplanted to Central-Eastern Europe. The Castilians, culturally more similar to the Moors than to the French. The Lithuanians and Prussians, pagan tribes sandwiched between Christian powers.

It ought to be perfectly possible for people to come up with fantasy settings based on 'Europe' that are just as, if not more exotic, than Rokugan or Kara-Tur or any of the other 'non-European' inspired stuff that's out there. See, this is why I need to know more about medieval history...

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#2 - Brian Murphy]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

Brian Murphy is a wolf-breeder and turkey-shoot-stall owner from the town of Dead Weasel in Minnesota. As well as his many other pursuits, he is a reknowned expert on tobacco pipes and the author of the nonfiction bestseller Spitoons of the Wild West: 1854-68. His favourite food is marzipan and he once killed a man just to watch him die. His dream is to be the first man to travel from pole to pole via zeppelin, and he is the current butter-eating world record holder.

1 - Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember your first gaming session? What happened, and why did it suck you into the hobby?

My first gaming session was December of '81 (I think). I was DM, after having read Moldvay's Basic thanks to leaving the light on in the hall outside my bedroom the night before. It was just bright enough to read by even with the light in my room out. My mother, brother, and father rolled characters, but my dad was the only one who really played. The guy has a PhD in Chem E, so I got right into the whole lateral thinking deal. When I described the black veins in the rocks of the Caves of Chaos, he asked what they were. I had no idea, so I asked him what they could be. He floated some suggestions, and the one I latched on to was coal. He then proceeded to powder the coal and use to, in effect, create a bomb to blast in the doors of the goblin warren.

My father decided he never wanted to play D&D again, because the game was too violent for his tastes. He did, though, do some free-form gaming with me on airplane trips later, mostly sci-fi stuff. I can only claim that first session as a moderate success, but even then I got a hint of the game's potential. And honestly, at the time I was crazy for anything with knights and dragons and all that in it. I'd already devoured C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and from there launched into The Hobbit, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. If the game had utterly sucked, I still probably would have played the living daylights out if it.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

Ho boy! I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a ranger. Yes, I started with Moldvay/Cook, but I didn’t get to actually play until I had AD&D. In his very first adventure, he barely survived the Palace of the Silver Princess, and I was quite annoyed when the awakened princess wanted the loot we’d gathered. And I remember thinking there was something fishy about the story she told us. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time, so this guy didn’t have much personality. He did have a very cool magical repeating crossbow (we were ignorant of the Chinese design at the time) which fired bolts like a machine gun, and poisoned them on the way out. I just told the DM how many seconds I kept the trigger down for and he rolled dice behind the screen to tell me how many died.

The game skirted Monty Haul but never quite devolved into it. There were always challenges, but again, primarily of the lateral sort. Even after he had a castle/spaceship, my ranger was struggling to keep thieves out, convince his people they really needed to pay at least some taxes, and rid the sewers of annoying giant rats and zombies.

The moment I remember best was when he ended up finally facing down Loki, a character who had been a bit of a thorn in his side. Loki proved immune to poisoned crossbow bolts, but my ranger did have a girdle of giant strength at that point. So while grappling with the trickster god, my ranger ripped Loki’s arm off and proceeded to beat him to death with it. I seem to remember the attitude of the rest of the pantheon being something like, “Well, it was Loki, so I guess we won’t make too big a deal about it. But don’t get cocky!” ;)

3 - Have you been playing regularly ever since, or have their been long gaps in your gaming?

HUUUUUUUGE gaps. From about 5th grade to 8th I only got to play maybe once every few months. Mostly, I kept gaming alive by reading Dragon, mapping out dungeons nobody every explored, and daydreaming.

4 - What do you think attracts you to the hobby? Why this and not, say, cross-stitch or ice hockey?

Not much ice in south Texas and last time I checked out cross-stitch, there was a noticeable lack of scantily clad beauties and rubies the size of a man’s skull. ;)

Seriously, RPGs are a sort of crossroad for lots of interests of mine: reading, writing, puzzles, history, anthropology, fashion, science, nature, sex, mythology, sociology, architecture, travel, exploration, fantasy, sci-fi, and art. For the price of snacks, I can hit on all of those in a single four-hour session while wallowing in my joy of daydreaming, and I get to share it with other people, too. I really can’t imagine a better hobby.

And deep inside me there’s still a nine-year-old boy who’s just gaga over knights and dragons and Robin Hood.

5 - Is there anything about the hobby you strongly dislike?

Not really. There are some things I’d like to change. I’d like to play more, and get paid for doing so. But there’s nothing I strongly dislike about it.

6 - How would you introduce a newcomer to rpgs? Have you ever done so?

A few times, yes. The last time was with a girlfriend in college. I sold it to her as an Infocom game, but with a real person at the other end who wouldn't keep spitting back “You don’t see that here.” She created a whip-wielding magic-user for 2e who was heavily influenced by Indiana Jones, and I gave her an adventure that was all traps and puzzles. We had a blast, and last I heard she hadn't books and still had some interest in RPGs.

I think the old ways are best here. It *is* like a story or your favorite action movie, but you’re the main character, and you get to make the choices. How would you escape the cyclops, or sneak into Dr. Evil’s hidden undersea base? Does your character fall in love with the mysterious stranger with the jade green eyes or the childhood friend who has stuck by you through thick and thin? What would you do with your share of Smaug’s hoard? Answering those questions is fun. So is playing through the consequences.

7 - Do you hide the fact that you game, or do you live an "I am who I am" geek dream?

I couldn’t hide it if I wanted to. My new boss introduces me to everyone we meet as, “He was my DM in college!” ;D

8 - What would your 'desert island game' be? (That is, if you were marooned on a desert island with four other rpg players and you only had one set of rulebooks, which books would you choose?)

Define “set”. ;) If you’re going to hold my feet to the fire, I’d probably go with Moldvay/Cook, but I’ve always mixed it up. In my currently Labyrinth Lord game, I'm using a lot of Moldvay/Cook, the BECMI Creature Catalogue, 1e DMG and monster books (MM, MM2, and FF), yak folk from 3e, and my vast collection of Dragon magazines, as well as my growing collection of Fight On! issues. And that’s not counting all the resources on the web, like your page or Taichara’s Hamsterish Hoard, about which not enough good things can be said.

9 - Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing rpg material for money? Ever tried to get anything published? Ever self-published?

Thought about it and done it! I got my first rejection slip from Wolfgang Baur when he was at Dragon Magazine. It was for an article on designing adventures based around political intrigue. A lot of the ideas I talked about in that article are now are common practice in some games, things like relationship charts and paths of knowledge, but at the time I thought I was coming up with them for the first time. Mr. Baur was right to reject it; I was fresh out of college and wrote it like a college paper: dry and wordy. The friend I mentioned who made the Indiana Jones-esque magic-user later helped me whip that article into shape and it got published in KoDT. To date, that’s been the extent of my getting paid for RPG writing.

I was really excited about the OGL, but could never get into 3e. Without playing it, I really didn’t feel qualified to write anything, so I never did anything with it. I regret that a bit, but I don’t regret at all sticking with the 1e/2e mash-up I played.

10 - What would be your ideal soundtrack to a session of your favourite gamee? Pick three songs.

- 1: “The Road To La Coruna” from the Seville Suite by Bill Whelan

- 2: ”Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom” from the “Conan the Barbarian” soundtrack by Basil Poledouris

- 3: “Sea of Miracles” from the “Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight” soundtrack by Yoko Kanno

11. So your favourite game seems to be Moldvay/Cook (or mixed up Moldvay/Cook). Can I ask why? Is it just nostalgia, as your first game? It seems that most people tend towards citing their first game as their favourite, though of course there are exceptions.

Nostalgia is part of it. Just looking at that Jeff Dee, Erol Otis, and Bill Willingham art puts me in the mood to game. But I probably wouldn't have given the game a second look but for the old school renaissance. Like most, I couldn't see past the parts I was hung up on: race-as-class, hit points, the fact that an axe and a sword are almost identical in mechanical terms. The bloggers of the renaissance, especially Jeff Rients, James Maliszewski, and most especially Robert Fisher and Philotomy, got me to really see the potential for the old versions.

Now, that said, I think you can talk about old school DMs ranging across a spectrum. At one end are the purists who love the game just as it is. These are the folks who will argue for the beautiful simplicity of race-as-class and one die for all weapons types. At the other end of this spectrum are the tinkerers. They look at all that simplicity and see it as an invitation to treat D&D as a fantasy RPG construction set. I fall firmly on that latter end of the spectrum. When Mr. Maliszewski was talking about a swords-and-sorcery D&D project, which led him to start his Grognardia blog, one of his mantras was take what old D&D gives you, and then turn it up to 11. He was the first one I'd read who suggested that memorizing a spell should have side effects, which led to my list of secondary-powers and “leakage” effects for the magic-user spells. And it was in that same spirit that I started to think that if I was going to use descending AC and the combat tables, there was no reason for the numbers to march in order, 18, 17, 16, etc. all the way down. That was the inspiration for my rogue's funky to-hit tables. Wanting to play more with henchmen and loyalty was the inspiration for my gnome class. I've just about got a hierodule class written based on some tinkerings with the morale system, though that one has a few major issues that still have me stumped.

I love this ability to tinker and make the game your own. Based on some stuff from your blog and David Larkin's writing about Pendragon and other high fantasy themes, my LL game was originally going to be set in Cerilia of the Birthright setting. But I kept finding myself drawn to the artwork of Frazetta and Elmore, the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon, and the sword-and-sorcery literature of Howard and Leiber and Wagner. As much as I've been enjoying Erikson's Malazan novels, finding a copy of Christopher Silke's Tooth and Claw set my brain on fire. I devoured it over a weekend and after that my course was set. The cool thing about D&D is how easy it was to change gears. With a system like True20, which I'd been tinkering with previously, that sort of change would have required a lot of work, but with D&D I just fiddled with the equipment lists and deities and I was most of the way there.

12. Ripping off Loki's arm and beating him to death with it! I've never heard that one before. How much damage did one blow of Loki's severed arm do? Are your games that wacky these days?

I think the arm did only 1-2 points of damage, but it counted as magical for the purposes of harming a god, and with my girdle of giant strength I was probably doing +6 to +8 on every hit. And 1e gods had like 100 or so hit points before they have their arms ripped off. ;)

As for being wacky, I dunno, honestly. Talking about the way I DM is difficult sometimes because to me it's like saying the sky is blue. A lot of my style started with that first game, with my dad powdering coal and turning it into a bomb and stuff like that. I don't think it's wacky, because to me that's what playing D&D is supposed to be like. So when Oddysey's Rukmini led the tarantella into the bed of amber lotus, I was more than happy to roll with it. It was a cool idea. Was it wacky? I didn't think so. I thought it was clever. Are hedonistic elves and dragon-worshiping pirates wacky? What about carnivorous riding-birds and hierodule PCs? They're certainly not any wackier than clockwork modrons or the Lady of Pain. To me, that's just D&D turned up to 11.

13. What prevented you from getting into 3e?

3e was a real heartbreak for me. It promised everything I'd always said I'd wanted in D&D: an end to level-limits and weapon restrictions, a robust skill system, and monsters who were as detailed as the PCs themselves. And I was just buzzing with the thought of the OGL. I was all ready to create a campaign and adventures and turn them into products for sale.

Instead, I found the game horribly unwieldy. There was so much stuff to work with, stat blocks that took up an entire page, characters who were supposed to be heroes but could barely demonstrate competency in skills I'd grown confident in by the age of 16, and that's not even getting into the unintended consequences. 3E was the last nail in the coffin of my trust in professional game design. 2E's Tome of Magic nearly derailed my college game. At that point, I should have seen the writing on the wall, but it was really 3e that finally convinced me there was no set of rules I could play out-of-the-box without some serious tinkering.

So I played some 3e but never ran it as a DM. It turned out everything I'd always wanted was nothing like what I enjoyed running. I'd play in a 3e game today with the right DM, but I don't see myself ever going back to run it. What I want these days are toolkits to make the games I'm excited about playing. That means games like True20, GURPS, and Moldvay/Cook D&D.

Brian would have us believe that he looks like this:

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Spelljammer Star Trek

Apropos of my post the other day, I was thinking about how you might map the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew to D&D classes and races for Spelljammer. Sounds like the geekiest thing ever, I know, but before you get the urge to point and shout 'nerd!' I should stress that I was thinking about it while watching a game of rugby, drinking six pints of Guiness, making millions on the stockmarket and having sex with three cheerleaders.

Anyway, so, here's the original series crew:

Kirk - Human fighter.
Spock - Half-elf mage.
Bones - Human cleric.
Scottie - Dwarf bard.
Uhura - Human bard.
Sulu - Arcane.
Chekhov - Tinker-gnome.


Picard - Human fighter/mage.
Data - Thri-kreen.
Geordie - Tinker-gnome.
Worf - Giff.
Troi - Human (level 0).
Tasha Yar - Scro.
Guinan - Illithid.
Riker - Human fighter.
Wesley Crusher - Halfling thief.
Beverly Crusher - Human druid. (Yeah, I know this doesn't really work biologically.)

I think Klingons would definitely be giff. Vulcans and Romulans would be elves. Cardassians are dracons, and Ferengi are clearly neogi. The Borg could be beholders. Not sure what Bajorans would be, but they're boring anyway.

I didn't give much thought to DS9 or the horrors that followed, but Janeway was definitely a scro. And Harry Kim was a kobold.

Monday 20 April 2009

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

Things I'd like more knowledge of and/or skill in, so that I could generally Game Better:
  • The probabilities of getting each score on each of the major dice and the common combinations;
  • Geography in general - particularly how climate, ecology etc. combine in biomes;
  • How to draw properly;
  • How to make nice looking tactical maps;
  • Mythologies of the world;
  • Fantasy, scifi and horror literature;
  • Linguistics;
  • Medieval history and economics;
  • Space.

Sunday 19 April 2009

My Magna Carta

Cool post at Uncle Bear the other day:
In the book No Plot? No Problem? author Chris Baty discusses creating two “Magna Cartas” before tackling a fiction project. One is a list of things you like about the genre, what makes you want to read it (or, in the case of a roleplaying game, play it or run it), the things you’ll want to include. The object is to keep you focused on the things that will make it fun to work on. The other Magna Carta is for things you dislike and want to avoid. You make this list to remind you where you don’t want to go, cliches to resist and paths of least resistance to avoid traveling. It’s a process I apply to worldbuilding and campaign building, and a topic I cover at length in the forthcoming Worldbuilding 101 book.
Here's my list of likes and dislikes in a role playing campaign setting.


Non-European influences
Capricious gods, spirits and suchlike
Characters who relax the way people relax in the real world (sex, alchohol, drugs)
A cold-hearted universe
Ancient ruins
Mutations of some variety, and/or fear of mutation
Good old British fantasy malaise/fatalism
Dwarves having disproportionate influence


Elves and their imitators
Anachronistic real-world modern-day politics/beliefs
Characters who kick ass all the time or who are overly awesome
Magic item economies
Gods who dispense quests
Giving new names to traditional fantasy races to try to appear innovative. If it's an orc, call it an orc, for God's sake!

Saturday 18 April 2009

Do Not Feed The Oysters

Huge freshwater oysters lurk in the waters of the God River, filtering algae and other nutrients from the water. Most are harmless and make a tasty meal - which has certain well-known effects on the eater. Rare breeds, however, have developed the ability to kill.

This occurs when an unsuspecting water-dweller or swimmer passes nearby. The oyster lies with its shell wide open so that both halves are flat against the river bottom. When its thin hair-like tendrils detect movement in the water nearby, the halves immediately snap shut. Smaller animals are taken whole, while larger animals are caught in the jaws. Either way, they eventually starve to death or drown - or, if they are lucky, lose a limb. Then their nutrients are gradually absorbed by the oyster.

The oysters are perfectly camouflaged, and in any case appear harmless, so they surprise opponents 95% of the time - unless those opponents are forewarned.

Giant Flesheating Oyster

Armour Class: 0
Hit Dice: 5 (L)*
Move: 0
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 1d12 (A successful hit means the victim is caught, and will bleed to death, losing 1d4 hit points per round. If submerged in water, they will drown after 10 rounds. They cannot escape unless the oyster is killed.)
No. Appearing: 1-12
Save As: F3
Morale: N/A
Treasure Type: V
Intelligence: 0
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 125

Friday 17 April 2009

We do not know what thing the universe is

The Ipogo school of philosophers divide all life into the following categories:

p) those that belong to the emperor;
b) embalmed things;
k) those that are trained;
g) innumerable ones;
f) mermaids;
j) fabulous beings;
those that are drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush;
w) those that are not included in the other categories;
l) those that tremble as if they were mad;
h) those that at a distance resemble flies.

From this categorisation, they have developed an 'analytical language' which aims at creating the true name for every living thing - by dividing and subdividing each category and allocating a separate letter to each one. Thus, the true name of a kraken is formed by taking j (for a fabulous being), à (for the subdivision of fabulous being which lives in the ocean), w (for the subsubdivision of ocean-dwelling fabulous being which destroy ships), and è (for the subsubsubdivision of ocean-dwelling fabulous being which destroys ships and has a beak) - thus making jàwè. On the other hand, the carefully preserved corpse of the oligarch Suyong-bui 9's favourite midget, which sits before the stairs to the Old Temple in Silaish Vo, has the true name bàfolì. This is taken from its categorisation as an embalmed thing which was once owned as a slave, which had never known the physical act of love, which had lost a digit, which had given pleasure, and which was stunted.

True names necessarily change according to cirumstance. For example, if another item which resembles that currently known as bàfolì should be discovered, this would necessitate a further subdivision - for example, the first bàfolì might become bàfolìp, distinguished by being male, and the second bàfolìj, by being female.

The Ipogo keep a vast library in their palace in the Yellow City, containing all the true names of everything that is known to them. The philosophers spend their entire lives cataloguing the various specimens and reports that are sent to them by their field workers and underlings scattered throughout Yoon-suin. It is their belief that their analytical language will some day supplant all existing tongues, as it will communicate intrinsic meaning as well as mere signifiers - making it superior in efficiency.

However, their great terror is the universe itself, which defies all attempts at categorisation. The phrase "We do not know what thing the universe is" has become a mantra for its members and a saying in the Yellow City used to illustrate futility. Even in the crowded markets of the city you can hear it, as a man gives up his search for the latest shipment of opium and throws up his hands in frustration, or as a girl turns to her consort to explain that she no longer loves him. We do not know what thing the universe is. So that is that.

[This entry is almost entirely stolen from The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, by Borges - thankfully now out of copyright.]

Tuesday 14 April 2009

There's Klingons off the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow...

I've been on a big Star Trek trip recently after many years of shunning it. I was a huge Next Generation fan first time around (I was the perfect age for it, being about 10 or 11) but could never get into DS9, actively disliked Voyager (has there ever been a less charismatic set of actors gathered together in one place? except for the doctor), and by the time Enterprise came along, just wasn't interested anymore.

Then for some reason late last year I got a hankering to watch some Trek and picked up Seasons 3 and 4 of NextGen on DVD. Now I'm hooked again. There has never been such an imperfectly perfect TV series, and I doubt there ever will be again.

Naturally this has me thinking about the age-old problem which has haunted gamerdom for generations. I believe Marcel Proust put it best:

"In his younger days a man dreams of possessing a Star Trek role playing game which he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a Star Trek role playing game may be enough to make him fall in love with it."

Or; why are we satisfied with substandard Trek role playing games, dammit?

It is my firm belief that the ultimate tool for Star Trek role playing is Risus. This is because, let's face it, Trek is fundamentally about things which can't be covered by rules - i.e. morality, logic puzzles, exploration and weird aliens with funny heads. That's the essence of the show in my opinion. Working out how much damage a phaser does, exactly how much a Klingon can lift, or how quickly a ship flying at Warp 4 can get to Tau Ceti Alpha Gamma 6 from Beta Delta Centauri Alpha entirely misses the point. What you need is a rules-lite system that doesn't get in the way of the derring-do, the exploration, and the debates over the Prime Directive and whether androids are sentient - which is the heart of the series. (That doesn't mean the game has to be turned into a comedy, mark you - Risus works surprisingly well as a 'serious' rules-lite system too.)

The thing about Risus is that it can be easily used to emulate 'social combat' - way better than any Forge game ever could. And as a heavy element of Star Trek is social combat, it seems a perfect fit. Think of Picard (Interstellar Diplomat 3) debating with Gowron (Raging Klingon 4) over whether or not to go to war. Or Riker (Spacefaring Casanova 4) trying to seduce that sexy genderless alien (Genderless Alien 3) who just came aboard. See?

Barking Alien has some good posts about this too, in which he talks about how to run a Star Trek campaign (or 'series'). Take a look.

Monday 13 April 2009

Teach Yourself the Yellow City Trade Tongue

What the heck, I'm going to start making up a language - partly as an exercise in linguistics, which I've always been interested in but never properly studied, and partly because it's one of those things that the fantasy authors I really admire have done - and if JRR Tolkien, MAR Barker and Jack Vance can do it, why can't I? (To those of you who might be reading this and thinking: this man has too much time on his hands...well, it helps that I don't watch any TV.)

The language I'm going to make up is the Yellow City Trade Tongue, a lingua franca spoken in and around the Yellow City and the places up and down the coast with which it trades. It's a simple language, as most lingua francas are (this also helps me start small), rather like Chinook Jargon or Sabir. What's unique about it is that it's the only language which both slug men and human beings can use to communicate properly with one another. Slug men's simple mouths, which lack teeth and have only a rudimentary tongue, can't produce many of the sounds which humans use in their languages, and humans can't produce the pheremones which slug men use to augment their own speech. Yellow City Trade Tongue provides a way around that.

Currently, the only thing I've really decided on about Yellow City Trade Tongue is that it is consonant-poor. The labiodental, dental and alveolar consonants are nonexistent, as are the nasals - slug men don't have bones or noses. This means that the only consonants available are most of the plosives, some fricatives and approximants, and the bilabial trill. (You can follow along with what this all means with the help of this handy IPA chart with sound samples.) By contrast, it is very vowel-rich. Almost all of the vowels are present, as well as dipthongs - slug people have no problem producing those sounds and in fact could probably create more.

I'll be going away and thinking about this some more tonight, as well as thinking about some fundamentals of grammar.

Saturday 11 April 2009

In Which I Postpone Posting

I'm feeling lazy and don't have much time to write, but I'm determined to stick to my at-least-one-post-every-24-hours routine. So, here's a post with a few teasers of posts I intend to write next week:
  • A combat analysis, where I 'fight out' some duels using D&D, WFRP, Cyberpunk 2020 and Burning Wheel and compare mechanics;
  • A post about making up a language for slug people;
  • A schema of Yoon-suin classes;
  • A complaint about jet lag (long-haul flight on Wednesday);
  • Something about Star Trek.
Be afraid.

Friday 10 April 2009

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#1 - Max Davenport]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

An accomplished actor, musician, martial artist, and philanthropist - there are the many facets to Max Davenport. For over 25 years, Max has brought an unparalleled passion for the arts that few can match. His deep spiritual roots are an integral part of his movies, his music, his martial arts expertise and his genuine love and care for others. From humble beginnings in Detroit, Michigan to finding his cultural center in Japan, to an acting career launched in 1988, to a flourishing music career and his involvement with numerous charities - this is Max Davenport.

Let's hear what he has to say about RPGs...

1 - Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember your first gaming session? What happened, and why did it suck you into the hobby?

You know, I honestly don't remember a first session. I was probably 7 or 8? We lived out in the country and the kid across the street only wanted to play baseball and occasionally beat me up. I remember going to the local recreation center for Friday evening games a few times, but as a shy kid on the younger end of the age range I never felt comfortable.

Eventually I got into a semi-regular group with the son and nephew of one my teachers. They lived one town over, but we got together for overnight D&D marathons when we could.

What drew me into the hobby the most was the creative aspect of making up characters and monsters, drawing dungeons, dreaming up adventures -- the solitary side of the hobby. My most vivid memory of actual play in the first few years I gamed was a tantrum I threw when I couldn't get my players to stop cracking jokes. Tears were shed, threats to take my toys and go home were made.

Let's just move on.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

Oh pssh, who knows? I never got a chance to play in an ongoing campaign in those days, so most of my characters were scarcely differentiated mooks who changed from game to game. I do remember two high level characters I made up but never played. One was a lawful good halfling fighter, Peregrine something-somesuch -- straight off the hobbit family tree in a Tolkien appendix. The other was a half-orc assassin who used an "arrow sling," a weapon of my own imagining -- a giant rubber band for shooting arrows with. I've rolled Retro-Stupid since retro was new, kid.

3 - Have you been playing regularly ever since, or have their been long gaps in your gaming?

I gave away all of my gaming stuff the summer before I went to college, including Gamma World 2e, a bunch of modules and Dragons and my only two minis, a beholder and a Jabberwocky. I didn't think about gaming for a decade except for buying a nostalgic copy of Tomb of Horrors at a comic shop. When I heard about 3e I collected the core books and various supplements but played it only once with an old friend.

Last January I found out about the impending Fourth Edition of D&D, and that piqued my interest again. But the more I read about 4e the less it floated my personal boat. I found myself drawn to the old school and the retro-clones -- and got a huge crush on the retro-mutant Encounter Critical.

Then of course the death of Gary Gygax was a memento mori -- for me and many others I'm sure. I asked myself, "If not now, when? You like gaming -- go find some gamers and roll the dice!

4 - What do you think attracts you to the hobby? Why this and not, say, cross-stitch or ice hockey?

I'm a fairly solitary person who also enjoys playing the fool, so gaming is a perfect hobby! I can spend an afternoon all to my lonesome poring over a dungeon map or scratching out monsters. But I also get a chance to extrovert myself playing face to face. Even online around the blogs and in play by post games there's a camaraderie.

And let me add that while I never took to sports or needlecraft, gaming isn't my only hobby. I do a fair bit of cycling in the warmer months (which gives me lots of time to brainstorm gaming ideas).

5 - Is there anything about the hobby you strongly dislike?

Monty Python references. The tedious "You are!" "No, you are!" neeener-neener bickering that keeps me from reading most online forums. People who mistake arrogance for wisdom. All of which, of course, are really blemishes on geekdom in general rather gamers alone.

6 - How would you introduce a newcomer to rpgs? Have you ever done so?

Never had the opportunity to introduce a new player to the hobby. Given the chance I guess I'd keep it as simple as possible, adding in rules along the way. Depending on the interest of the new player I'd go with Labyrinth Lord for fantasy, Mutant Future with the setting filed off for science fiction, Risus for other genres. These three because I know them reasonably well and they can all be pared down to a few simple rules. And they are all free, so the truly interested could dive in!

7 - Do you hide the fact that you game, or do you live an "I am who I am" geek dream?

I'm open about my interests -- currently my coworkers are enjoying the lurid series of vintage horror posters I'm using for desktop backgrounds, which changes every couple days when Netflix mails me a new Hammer film. I guess they know I play D&D too -- I've mentioned it in passing.

8 - What would your 'desert island game' be? (That is, if you were marooned on a desert island with four other rpg players and you only had one set of rulebooks, which books would you choose?)

I'd go with some iteration of OD&D. It has already proven itself adaptable and inspirational enough to spawn the entire hobby, and its cod-medieval sword & sorcery milieu is defined sketchily enough that it can be (and, indeed has been and continues to be) jerry-rigged to fit many other genres. It's the Swiss Family Robinson/Army Knife of games.

I'd also smuggle in Risus, nestled safely between my ears.

9 - Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing rpg material for money? Ever tried to get anything published? Ever self-published?

I have been published in the fanzine Fight On! and hope to be again. I hope to put together .pdfs of some adventures and such to share online, but I haven't any aspirations to publish on demand or freelance.

10 - What would be your ideal soundtrack to a session of your favourite game? Pick three songs.

Aw hell. Where to start?

Rather than playing the Conan soundtrack or Dead Can Dance in the background, I like the idea of matching atmospheric music to specific encounters. Cue up some barrel-chested Georgian choral music for a meeting with dwarven elders, or wild Romanian fiddle tunes when they party goes astray in the haunted forest. My wife and I are big fans of
he brilliant viol player Jordi Savall, so we have hours of amazing early music in our collection as well. And every dead D&D PC could be honored with Motorhead's "Deaf Forever."

Beyond D&D I feel like skronky modern jazz and Gamma World / Mutant Future go together like flies and candy. Might just be me though. If I were running something spooky I'd put the 12" version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" on repeat. I could listen to that bass line for hours.

But this isn't what you asked. You asked for three songs for a favorite game. I'll do you better and direct you my Encounter Critical playlist on Youtube: It's got Billy Ocean on it so you know I ain't foolin' around.

11. So Encounter Critical. What on earth is the attraction?

Oh, now you've uncorked the bottle.

As Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to ask, you'll never know." But I'll give it a shot. To quote another legendary jazz trumpeter, Jeff Rients recently said "EC was like a pulling a blindfold from my eyes and being able to really see the impossibilities of roleplaying for the very first."

I actually fell for the EC hoax myself -- a year after the big reveal, because I read one of Jeff's early reviews, thought "Man, what a crazy world," and moved on. But it wormed its way into my brain, and when I found out the full history I had to read the whole thing. Have you? It is not only a genuinely hilarious piece of writing but a brilliant bit of in-character roleplaying too. It's like this: Have you ever watched one of those generally wretched movies that tries to be deliberately awful in emulation of old B-movies? It's not easy to do, and most of the movies just feel hammy and forced. EC pulls this trick off. It works because it is *totally sincere.* All of its satire comes from a deep love of this oddball hobby and its equally odd devotees, and an unreserved joy in playing games.

Add in an adventuresome setting that allows me free reign to indulge my love of bad puns and pop-culture and BOOM! the whole thing went of in my head like a Warlock Bomb. I never *knew* that I wanted a game where Edgar Winter is the last scion of a decadent island empire, wandering the world on an endless rock'n'roll tour, wielding a soul-eating demon synthesizer. But as it turns out, I do, and EC is that game.

12. You're into horror then. But it's interesting that you don't mention much horror roleplaying. You've never dabbled in World of Darkness or the like?

Is WoD a horror game, really? I'm not being snarky -- I have very little experience of it. But if your character is a monster, a supernatural creature, doesn't that make horror normative? What is there to dread?

Lest anyone think I trying to knock WoD, I freely admit I don't know what I'm talking about. I've never read a WoD rulebook. What little I've gleaned of the milieu, Vampire in particular, just doesn't interest me enough to pursue. I have no doubt that there are GMs out there running campaigns that would prove me wrong. But I'll just say this: It's Peter Cushing I root for. I like my vampires stalked, staked, and sun-baked. Stuff their mouths with garlic, beat them with a crucifix and chop their heads off.

As for other horror games Call of Cthulhu interests me, but I don't currently own it. I'd play it gladly though!

13. You wanted to move on, but I'm going to ask anyway: You threw a tantrum because you couldn't get your players to stop cracking jokes, but you like Encounter Critical, Risus and 'playing the fool'. Seems like a bit of tension there between the serious and comedy Maxes. Would that be a fair comment?

It might be if I were still ten years old! Nowadays I'm more laid back, I think. Certainly as a player I can tolerate a table that goes in and out of focus over the course of an evening. But I'm judging a face-to-face game for the first time in 20 years in a couple of weeks. If I lose my shit and end up shouting and sobbing perhaps you can resume this prying and distasteful line of questioning.

Hell, if you're lucky somebody will film it and it will go viral on Youtube.

Hopefully Max will let us know how that face-to-face game goes... He blogs semi-regularly at Malevolent & Benign, so watch that space.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Yoon-suin gets its first (proper) bit of art

I have to direct you to a recent post on D&D Doodles, containing two pieces of art inspired by my NPCs in the Yellow City. Crazyred did them off his own bat, so it was a very nice surprise seeing them in my google reader tray this morning. Great stuff - and it's nice to get the chance to link to his blog too, because the guy needs more recognition!

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Redsticks and Jacobites: Campaign Idea

A friend and I used to write a blog together. Our enthusiasm gradually petered out and now we don't update it, but today I took a look over the old entries and reminisced. Here's a post from July 2007 which, with hindsight, would I think make a great starting point for a campaign:

I've recently become interested in what I've decided to christen the "things that make you go 'hmmm'" school of historical study: the way certain events - often barely noticed ones - from history can conspire odd and unexpected ways; ways that nobody could have predicted and which seem so incongruous and fitting as to have almost been planned by a fiction writer.

An example of this is the curious link between the Jacobite Rebellion of the Scottish Highlands and the Red Stick War of the Creeks against the United States government.

From the late 17th century to the mid-18th, Scottish independence from England took its last throw of the dice, when James VII and later Bonnie Prince Charlie launched insurgencies, with the aid of Highland Scottish clans, against the London government. A century of massacres, battle and guerilla warfare resulted, in which ancient Highland clan rivalries played as much a part as the question of independence, before finally the rebellion was ended at the 1746 Battle of Culloden. (My own genes played something of a role in the story: my great-grandmother had her roots in Clan Campbell, a large and powerful Highland clan which sided with the British in the rebellion in order to settle long-held grudges against Clans Lohan, MacDonald and MacGregor.)

After the Jacobite Rebellion had been stamped out, the British government proceeded with a policy of ethnic cleansing (an anachronistic but appropriate term) in which Scottish Highland society and culture were effectively destroyed. Large numbers of disposessed clansmen, cast out from their homeland, found themselves on ships bound for the New World. It's hard to imagine, these days, the situation of these men, plucked from an insular world of high, wet moorland, narrow valleys and deep dark lochs, to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean; our own experience of overseas travel is utterly alien to it. It must have been terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time.

The place they found themselves in, on the opposite side of the planet, would, I think, have been surprisingly familiar. Native American society, with its tribalism, its clan bonds, and its endemic violence, wouldn't have been dissimilar to Highlands life; it's natural that the Scots would have made their ways to the frontiers, where they were often the vanguard of expansion.

Three of their descendants were to become a coterie of young leaders at the heart of the Creek nation at the turn of the 19th century: 'Menawa', William Weatherford (Red Eagle) and Peter McQueen, each half-Scottish, born to frontiersmen and Creek women, versed in both cultures, and often posessing startlingly incongruous eccentricities - like the regular playing of bagpipes before a battle. They came to prominence as the central force of the Red Stick movement - a group of young Creeks who believed in violent resistance to white expansion - which in 1812 began an insurgency against settlers, government forces and "civilized Creeks" in the American South. Massacre and guerilla warfare continued for some years before the rebellion reached its bloody conclusion at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and its aftermath.

The parallels are obvious - both rebellions were categorised by slaughter of civilians (the Massacre at Glencoe and The Fort Mims Massacre); both were considerably more complicated than "native against government" (some Highlanders, like the men of Clan Campbell, fought for the British, and many Lower Creeks and Cherokees joined the US government against the Red Sticks - not to mention another Scots/Creek, William McIntosh); and, most sadly, both ended in the destruction of a way of life and an ancient culture. How interesting, though, and how like the plot of a novel, that it should be the very descendants of the Jacobites who should go on to be the driving force of the Red Sticks, in a land thousands of miles away and as ostensibly far removed as possible, and that their experience should be so similar.

Makes you go 'hmmm', see?

Game Blurbs that Work

Have you ever heard a brief description of a game and though to yourself: "Sold!"? Well, I just have, thanks to this little nugget here:
In a nutshell, if the medieval world had functioned the way that its population thought it did—magic exists and is scary, goblins turn the milk and steal your children, dragons exist but are a long way away, the dead sometimes rise but the power of God is stronger, the old king sleeps under the land and will rise when his country needs him, the current king is a prat, &tc. &tc.—then that’s Dragon Warriors.
I never got into Dragon Warriors first time around. It was very popular in Britain (and Australasia, I think) when I was a kid and I remember some people talking about it at school, but I was always more into Advanced Fighting Fantasy and then AD&D. Clearly, I was missing out. When I'm next in the old country I think I'll have to track down a copy - preferably of the original stuff, but if not, the retreads.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Sleepy Bestiary

The world and its wife is blogging about WotC stopping pdf downloads. Meanwhile, I woke up all of a sudden at 5.30 this morning, and jotted down this list of monsters for a Yoon-suin bestiary in an old note pad. My brain was stilll clearly in a weird fuzzy mixture of dream and wakefulness, as evinced by this transcript of what I wrote down:

Freshwater giant octopus - green and long tentacles
Gargantuan river dolphin - not extinct
Giant crayfish
Crystal & Topaz Dragons, no red ones
Roc? Boring
Garuda - like the ones in Bali
Velvet worms - many kinds
Mantis, centipede, millipede, crickets
Squid people
Devils and Demons
Undead Crabmen !!
Zombie slimy things
Myconids, baby
Those ant-eater things
Elephant-sized beetles for riding into war.

Thought: make orcs, goblins etc. into invertebrate humanoids. For example, Yoon-suin orcs are humanoid millipedes (etc.).

Monday 6 April 2009

The Hobby of Map Making and Setting Design

At Valley of the Blue Snails, Canecorpus discusses setting design as a hobby. It's something I can identify with. I enjoy role playing and I enjoy setting design, and sometimes I enjoy them entirely separately from one another. In fact I might go so far as to say that I like setting design even more than I like gaming. It's a great way to express creativity, especially if like me you are a terrible artist (regular readers will attest to this) and cursed with a flea-like attention span (precluding novel-writing); moreover I would call it a pure hobby in that there's no way that a setting-designer can possibly be in it for the money. You don't sell stuff like Yoon-suin on its own, at least not in numbers. It's a labour of love, and that's that.

Today I had a godawful hangover and crippling aches and pains from playing football last night, so I spent most of the day making maps. For inspiration I visited the Cartographer's Guild, and from there came across the amazing Sorol, a one-man effort to collect the "accumulated knowledge about the planet [Sorol], its inhabitants, and its history". The creator is not a role player and as far as I can discern just makes it all up for fun. (He makes, quite simply, the best maps of nonexistent places that I've seen.) It's good to know one is not alone, and even better to know that there are people out there with such skill, energy and motivation. It serves as a kick up the backside.

Of course, world creation is a venerable practice. Tolkien originally made up Middle Earth as a hobby and a way of providing a history for his created languages. The tradition continues to this day: one of the most interesting modern examples of world creation, Ill Bethisad, has similar origins. First created as an alternative history to explain the existence of Brithenig (a made-up language based on the premise that Latin in the British Isles did not die out), it is now a highly detailed world all of its own, with several constructed languages and a complicated political structure. Believe you me, if I had the linguistic knowledge I would also be making up languages myself - probably right this moment.

Beats watching TV anyway, right?

Sunday 5 April 2009

No I am not a 'Furry', but I do like mice with swords

I just wanted to make my non-'Furry'ness absolutely clear. I do, however, have an odd liking for animal fantasy. I was just the right age - about 11 - to enjoy the Redwall series in its early heyday (I stopped after about the fifth or sixth book; there are now nineteen, apparently) and ever since then I've had a fondness for that weirdest of fantasy genres. I recently tried to reread the first Redwall book and couldn't get into it - it was written pre-Harry Potter, i.e. in the days when books for adolescents really were books for adolescents. But I think Duncton Wood has stood the test of time for grown-ups - being very dark and bloody, and very strange, as befits a book about sentient moles. (Give it a try before sniggering.)

Anyway, it seems that the Burning [X] crowd's newish game Mouse Guard has been set up to scratch that particular itch. It's apparently based on a comic (which as you might know I absolutely don't read - unless you're talking about Garfield, Dilbert, Asterix or Tintin). I'm not a big fan of the whole Burning Wheel thing, though I have flirted with the game and own its original iteration. I do however like the look of Mouse Guard, and might actually make a purchase - especially since this is specifically sold as a simplified version of BW.

Really though I'm not sure that there isn't anything about animal fantasy that couldn't be based on a free game like Risus or, heck, Swords & Wizardry. (I think I wrote recently about an idea for insectoid-animal-fantasy using S&W? I can't be bothered to find the post.) Really all you need is the suspension of disbelief and a willingness not to snigger, and to replace 'elf' and 'dwarf' and 'human' with things like 'mouse', 'rat' or 'otter'. A project worth thinking about, perhaps. We already have Ruins & Ronin and Fantasy Wild West. Why not Mice & Mazes? Lagomorphs & Labryinths? Hyraxes & Hydras? No takers?

Friday 3 April 2009

Words that I like: "Sorcerer"

I do love the word 'sorcerer'. Say it with me now. Roll it around in your mouth. 'Sorcerer'. A fun word to say, don't you think?

I was thinking about it today while I listened to Jacques, Marc Almond's very odd but oddly brilliant tribute to Jacques Brel. One of the lines on the English version of the song 'The Lockman' - about a man operating a lock on a canal - describes the main character as "half sorcerer, half drunkard," which I just love, and which got me thinking about the word 'sorcerer' itself. It has such different connotations to 'wizard', 'mage' or 'warlock', I think - a hint of mystery and darkness that those words don't conjur up as strongly.

This is confirmed by a brief search in my wife's electronic Oxford English Dictionary and a quick look at The Oxford Modern Usage describes 'Sorcery' as "magic that uses evil spirits"; Eston's Bible Dictionary describes a 'sorcerer' as "In Dan. 2:2, [a] rendering of the Hebrew mekhashphim, i.e., mutterers, men who professed to have power with evil spirits." Meanwhile, the American Heritage Dictionary tells us that the English root is sortiārius, or "one who casts lots".

I like this. Somebody who casts lots, then summons evil spirits to explain to him the meanings. Or, somebody who summons evil spirits to do his dirty work, and casts lots to make it appear that he is just a harmless seer. Don't you think the designers of 3rd edition D&D missed a trick in making a, a wizard who doesn't use a spellbook? Snore.

Yoon-suin is going to have proper sorcerers.

Thursday 2 April 2009

The Winter of Our Discontent; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Shibboleths

An interesting coincidence (or something more sinister...?) sees a mild flamewar erupt on the rpg site about growing discontent with D&D 4e, while at the same time wailing and gnashing of teeth comes over the 'old-school' blogosphere about the revival/renaissance or whatever you call it and the retro-clones it has spawned. The moral of the story? People like complaining. And I am no exception.

Here's my own stance on the retro-clones. As I've said a few times in this blog, all they really boil down to is glorified shibboleths. I don't believe that they provide a solution to an otherwise insurmountable legal problem with publishing 'unlicensed game supplements'; that problem almost certainly doesn't exist. Nor do I believe they are necessary to preserve the older versions of D&D - all of which are available to buy as pdfs.

What they are useful for is as a means for like-minded people to easily identify one another. "D&D" will generally always mean the current or latest edition of the game to most roleplayers. At the moment, it's synonymous with "4th edition D&D". Fine, no problem, that's the way the world works, whatever ones personal likes and dislikes might be. But it does mean that saying "I like D&D" is problematic for someone who likes older editions. Other people might get the wrong idea and assume you play a game involving 'controllers', 'daily powers' and half-orcs with origins that absolutely do not involve anything bad.

However, say the magic words: "Swords & Wizardry", "OSRIC", "Labyrinth Lord", and if anybody within earshot is 'in the know' - Bingo! - they'll identify you as somebody who probably shares a similar gaming style. And vice-versa. Love, or at least mutual satisfaction, (ahem) will blossom. What's more, saying "Swords & Wizardry" has a kind of cache that saying "I like AD&D" or "I like B/X D&D" doesn't. It immediately lets the right kind of person know that you are in the club. Probably you read all the blogs and forums that the cool people read, have the right playstyle (sandbox, megadungeon, 'rulings not rules'), and possess a healthy disregard for Wizards of the Coast. You are one of the special ones, and all the other special ones will identify you as one of their own. This is a nice feeling to have. Belonging. And a hint of superiority over 'ordinary gamers'.

Nothing wrong with this of course - it's natural human behaviour that we all exhibit, no matter what hobby we have. In my circle of friends in school, saying that your favourite Smashing Pumpkins album was Pisces Iscariot had much the same function - it meant you were in the know, and to be trusted as somebody with impeccable taste. More usefully, the Flemish used to get people to pronounce the words 'schild en vriend' as a means of rooting out French speakers, who would pronounce them 'skild en frend'. And be killed.

Also, I should point out that I like Swords & Wizardry a lot as a cleaned-up version of OD&D, so no complaints about it on that score. But let's stop pretending that it's all just a way of getting around a legal problem now, shall we?

EDIT: Somebody in the comments to the post at LotFP makes the excellent point that the retro clones are free. Also, they are presented better than the older editions. These two factors make them excellent tools for spreading the word. But hey, I have broken ribs and have been writing bullshit insightful stuff about international law all day, so I can be forgiven for the extemporaneous nature of this post.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

The Imp of the Perverse

I've been more-or-less using BECMI D&D as my default for Yoon-suin, but the contrarian, obscurantist part of me (which is a rather big part) keeps wanting to use something Unusual. Candidates include:
  • The oft-overlooked and almost entirely unknown Zeb's Fantasy Roleplaying System, with its Sword & Sorcery vibe and colour-coded charts. Advantages: atmosphere, ease of use, can probably be included whole with whatever pdf I put out without invoking the Dark God, Litigation. Disadvantage: Obscure.
  • Advanced Fighting Fantasy, the by-all-accounts-horribly-broken, but incredibly rules-lite (Tunnels & Trolls eat your heart out) system of my youth. Advantages: Almost criminally easy to use and learn, endearing disregard for realism, cool Dark British Fantasy vibes lurking somewhere beneath the innocent exterior. Disadvantages: Legally dubious, would require extensive rule-fiddling.
  • Risus, the Anything RPG, because I love it so. Advantages: Easy to use, simple, free to use. Disadvantage: Has 'humourous' connotations I don't necessarily want.
  • Some sort of hack of Amber Diceless, which is my new obsession after I finally started reading the copy I've owned for about 16 years. Not a serious option, but hey.
  • Swords & Wizardry, which I'm sure you all know. Advantages: Easy and simple, free to use, familiar to 95% of role players. Disadvantage: A bit too fashionable for my obscurantist tastes.
I probably will end up sticking with BECMI. But the Imp of the Perverse is calling me...