Friday 31 July 2009

百人一首 (Hyakunin-isshu)

Hyakunin-isshu (lit. 100 people, 100 poems each) is a collection of poems, nowadays mostly known as a kind of card game which Japanese kids play on New Year's Eve. The game itself is pretty violent, a little bit like 'Snap', or P.I.G. (if you know what that is). But the cards themselves are interesting - extremely remotely similar to the European Tarot, except with poems.

There are a hundred cards, each representing a person from Japanese antiquity, and each with an associated poem. So for example you have the Koko Emperor's poem:

It is for your sake
That I walk the fields in spring,
Gathering green herbs,

While my garment's hanging sleeves
Are speckled with falling snow.

The Chunagon Yukihara's poem:

Though we are parted,
If on Mount Inaba's peak
I should hear the sound

Of the pine trees growing there,
I'll come back again to you.

Okikaze Fujiwara's:

Who is still alive
When I have grown so old
That I can call my friends?

Even Takasago's pines
No longer offer comfort.

And 97 others. You can read them all here in rather nifty Japanese/Romaji/English frames; click on the numbers to get pictures.

If I was going to run a game set in Japan, I'd like to use the Hyakunin-isshu as a kind of randomiser mechanism, perhaps dictating different events for a given month or season. So each in-game month you'd draw one of the cards and, based on that, determine matters which are not directly related to the PCs - e.g. things going on between different NPCs, the weather, general success or failure or shifts in power dynamics of different groupings. That sort of thing.

Thursday 30 July 2009

"Today the Doctors Allowed the Illusion of Choice."

So as you may know, I've been thinking about running a PBP game, but can't decide what to run - there are just too many wonderful options. So here's a strange idea. By coincidence, I just the other day thought up a new and special system for governing human interaction whereby people offer their opinions about what they want (or "cast a vote", if you will), whereupon those opinions (or "votes", if you prefer) are collated, and the majority decision is carried. I call this system "democracy", from the Greek demos (or "people") and kratos (or "strength"). You are free to use it in the conduct of your own lives, if you wish.

The strange idea is that people who want to play in a PBP or play-by-chat game run by me can submit to me their opinion (or "cast their vote") whereupon I will count the "votes" for and against the various options and via "democratic" means will decide on what to run. I know this is likely mindboggling stuff for my readership, but bear with me.

I will now list the options available. Interested parties should send me an email at jeanDOTdelumeau AT gmail DOT com saying "I would like to play [x]" where x is the title of the game. Preference will be given to people who I know and am involved in or have been involved in a game with. I'll choose about 4-6 people, count the votes, then choose a game based on that and let people know by Monday-ish. Deal? Here are the options:

  • Pendragon, but set in the Land of My Fathers, Cumbria/Scotland. Feudal knights in the north of Britain, facing off against Picts, Irishmen, Saxons and giants. No kilts because they hadn't been invented yet.
  • Cyberpunk 2020, set in Chigasaki. Low down and dirty, more Burning Chrome than Snow Crash or Bladerunner.
  • Sandbox ICE Middle Earth Role Playing in the Late Third/Early Fourth Age. Tolkien's entire creation as a playground. No appearance of canon characters because that's boring.

I like games that are fairly serious in tone, in which the players take initiative and have to expect it's likely their characters will die at some point if they're not careful. I don't have a preordained story in mind and what happens in the game generally does by player choice.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night

Top 5 Tom Waits lyrics you could base a game around:

1. We sail tonight for Singapore/don't fall asleep while you're ashore/cross your heart and hope to die/when you hear the children cry. A horror campaign set, obviously, in Singapore. Preferably 1920s Singapore. With Star Spawn of Cthulu.

2. Theres nothing sadder than a town with no cheer/Vic rail decided the canteen was no longer necessary there/no spirits, no bilgewater, and 80 dry locals/and the high noon sun beats a hundred and four/there's a hummingbird trapped in a closed down shoe store. Clearly Dogs in the Vineyard.

3. He went down, down, down/and the devil said "Where you been?". Paladins in the Seven Hells or the Abyss, anyone?

4. I plugged 16 shells from a thirty-ought-six/and a black crow snuck through/a hole in the sky/so I spent all my buttons/on an old pack mule. Nomads travelling the wastes of post apocalyptic Cyberpunk 2020 Australia.

5. Well I pulled on trouble's braids/and I hid in the briars/out by the quick mud/staying away from the main roads/passing out wolf tickets/downwind from the blood hounds. Escapees from a chain gang or prison breakers on the run, using Deadlands.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Katana Schmatana

Regular readers will know I'm not much of one for fetishisation of Japan. (See posts here and here.) So I was entertained to read this on earlier today:

[T]he myth of the katana being a better weapon than equivalent European swords (namely the medieval longsword) is debatable.

Japanese swords use vastly inferior iron for katanas compared to that available for medieval European swords, necessitating costly and time-consuming efforts by Japanese master swordsmiths to remove impurities from the iron, such as the famous "folding of the blade". Folding iron is a common forging technique not unique to Japan, but Japanese blades were folded many more times than European ones to compensate for the inherent lack of quality in material. This created multiple layers in the blade that retain the edge even after multiple uses, hence the reputation for sharpness. Combined with the slight curved shape, this makes the weapon very effective for cutting, while allowing it to be used for thrusting purposes.

On the other hand however, European swords are just as good, if not better than the katana. Besides aforementioned better material quality, the longsword was double edged with a point, which was far more difficult to forge than a single edged weapon. The longsword is a much more versatile weapon, able to cut and thrust, and the cruciform hilt construction is a lot better for parrying off blows than the katana. Contrary to popular belief, many longswords of equivalent size were just about the same weight.

Cutting motions were of relatively limited use against armor. Sword designs begin to heavily diverge here, as Europeans wore increasingly fuller and heavier armor while the warmer climes and limited mineral resources of Japan remained wearing comparatively less armor. Consequently, European weapons began to focus more on stabbing to overcome more vulnerable sections while Japanese weapons remained the same.

Friday 24 July 2009

The High Hunt

The High Hunt is a secret organisation popular among the spoiled sons and daughters of the Yellow City's elite. It is organised into cells of between six and twelve; each cell has a leader who knows a member of another cell, and there is no central leadership.

The High Hunt was formed as a means of relieving the boredom of pampered upper-class living. As the common Yellow City saying goes, "A life of sex, opium-eating and feasting is a blessing for a year but a curse for a lifetime"; without edge, danger and excitement life loses its fascination.

The main activity of The High Hunt is catching crabmen in the ghettos by the quayside. Crabmen are the untouchable caste of the Yellow City and humans and slugmen are forbidden to enter the areas where they live, so members of The Hunt do so in secret. Once a month they steal down to the docks and attempt to track down the biggest specimen they can to kill and bring back to their home base for consumption. Needless to say the crabmen are well aware of the danger posed by The Hunt, and their vigilante groups practice ritual dismemberment of Hunt members who they catch - usually while the victim is still alive. This makes Hunts a frightening and thrilling event for their members, which is exactly what they crave.

A typical Hunt is composed of d6+2 men and d4+2 women. 75% will be fighters of level 1-3 and typically armed with spears and axes; the others will be magic-users. There is always one leader, a fighter of level 3.

If a Hunt encounters other human beings, or slugmen, in the ghetto they will attempt to kill them on sight, fearing that their presence might be reported to the authorities. There is a 10% chance on a given night that a Hunt is taking place.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Why the Adventuring Party Makes Sense

Here's one of the reasons why I think the D&D adventuring party model makes sense.

When I was 18 I worked for nearly six months in Kyrgyzstan. This was a few years before 9/11 and the NATO bombing campaign on Afghanistan, and the Taliban were at the zenith of their power. They were a huge destabilising influence in the region. Kyrgyzstan's neighbour to the south, Tajikistan, was just coming out of a ruinous civil war that was partly fostered by Taliban-sponsored Islamic militants, and while I was in Kyrgyzstan a band of up to a thousand of these crossed over from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan's south - apparently with the aim of formenting revolution. They stayed for the entire summer, skirmishing with government forces and generally causing trouble, before slipping back over the border once they realised the Kyrgyz population was rather less fertile ground than Tajik one. I heard that this was, more or less, a yearly event.

What struck me about this, and what still strikes me now, is that the Kyrgyz government, poor but by no means destitute, and with a reasonable infrastructure inherited from its Soviet masters, had so little authority and control over its own borders. Russian troops, which had been guaranteeing its security for the years after independence, had been pursuaded to leave. But in their absence Kyrgyzstan wasn't able to stop a rag-tag band of idiot insurgents from waltzing into its territory as they pleased.

If modern Kyrgyzstan lacked the capacity to do this, I wonder, what chance did a feudal realm in the dark ages have? This is one of the reasons why the party of adventuring heroes makes a lot of sense to me: when the powers that be can't right wrongs, somebody else has to. And similarly, it's why the party of adventuring tomb robbers and plunderers makes a lot of sense: because who's going to stop them? The prevalence of adventurers in D&D societies isn't a silly cliche; it's a logical extension of the realities of the game world.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

What to do?

I'm thinking of running another game online. Because of the international jet setting lifestyle I lead it's impossible to get a face-face campaign on the go, but I have to play to stay alive and online gaming is the only alternative. The WFRP campaign is ticking along nicely now, and I believe I might just have the time to squeeze in another game. Ideally play-by-chat if the scheduling issues can be handled.

The question is, what? Right now I'm torn between Cyberpunk 2020 and Pendragon. The former is easier, the latter seems more fulfilling. Decisions, decisions.

Monday 20 July 2009

Why RPGs?

Inspired by comments here, I've been thinking about what got me into rpgs:
  • Escapism. The town I grew up in is a nice place, but boring. Liverpool is a big, exciting city and is just over the river, but that's far enough away to be too expensive for a kid to go to on public transport on more than a weekly basis. I played a lot of football and cricket as a youngster, but that doesn't provide the same escape.
  • Derring-do and adventure. Boys like those things, bears shit in the woods, etc.
  • Violence. Boys also like this. An important part of rpgs for my friends and I when we were 12-16 was the combat. No, not an important thing, the most important thing.
  • Disapproving parents. I sometimes read stories about people playing D&D with their sons and daughters, which is so completely alien to my experience I just can't envisage it. Moreover, I think the fact that my and my friends' parents would look at the covers of my AD&D rulebooks with raised eyebrows and looks of vague concern was all part of the fun.
  • By the same token, older friends. When I was 11 or 12 we gamed with my best friend's older brother (who was probably 14 at the time). It seemed like a hobby for more mature people, which was a good thing.
  • Pictures of hot women in the near-altogether. (In the absolute altogether was of course too much to hope for.) Larry Elmore has a lot to answer for.
  • The fact that there were a lot of pseudo-rpgs or lite-rpgs or whatever you want to call them around. For example, the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf adventure game books. They had massive market penetration 15-20 years ago. Not any more, that I can tell.
So what we need is to play up all those elements and the hobby will be booming, no?

Sunday 19 July 2009

Pendragon Pictures

Another reason for wanting to set a Pendragon campaign in Brittany is its many dolmens and menhirs. In my opinion these megaliths are as much a part of Arthurian legend/fantasy as the Round Table; perhaps not a part of every story, but always in the background as a mysterious and sometimes foreboding reminder of the world's age and the possibility that magic exists.

Some pictures:

Saturday 18 July 2009

The Children are our Future!

Trollsmyth, writing on Mishlergate and the fate of the rpg industry generally, makes some excellent points. Notably about the lack of youngsters in the hobby and an obvious reason why:
Since 2000, the "gateway" product has consisted of three 200+ page books costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 bucks. Even that might have been reasonable if the kids had been shown what benefits they would have received for their time and treasure. Was there even an attempt to overcome the fact that D&D was the game Dad played when he was in junior high? I never saw it. I never saw any outreach to these kids, any attempts to study their interests, or any attempts to adjust the game in ways that would appeal to them...
On the one hand I think the $60 thing is somewhat of a red herring. In the current currency market $60 is about 40 quid, and 40 quid is peanuts to my spoiled adolescent cousins. It's what they spend on games for their Wii every weekend. I think sometimes us adults forget how much life has changed for children in Britain or the US since we were young - I saved for literally months to afford the AD&D 2e DMG when I was 12, but kids these days (kids these days!) just don't seem to have that experience. To a point, money isn't an object.

Where Trollsmyth is bang on the money is outreach. What are the most popular fantasy fiction series for children around today? Harry Potter by a country mile, followed by probably those awful Twilight books, and I suppose you could throw in the Chronicles of Narnia too, thanks to the films. But where are the rpgs based on these franchises? I know that J. K. Rowling is touchy about fan fiction and fan produced products, but there is a metric shit ton of merchandising for Harry Potter - I sincerely doubt the lack of a Harry Potter RPG is down to an unwillingness on the part of the copyright holder. (There may even be a Harry Potter RPG for all I know, but if so it's had the worst marketing campaign in the history of marketing campaigns, which is the same point made a different way.) Where is the White Wolf-produced Vampire: The Masquerade-lite for all of the swooning adolescent girls who flocked in droves to the Twilight movie?

More to the point: Where is the High School Musical rpg? Complete with statistics for Having Totally Great Hair, Having Really Clean Teeth and Being Like So Totally Cute? Would that not sell?

I wouldn't touch such games with a barge pole, personally, but that isn't the point, and is precisely the kind of thinking which has hindered the passing on of rpgs to the younger generation. Fatbeards, catpissmen and types thinking: "Yuk, kids' stuff."

Trollsmyth thinks Green Ronin have a good idea with Witch Girl Adventures. It's certainly on the right track. I also find myself hoping that the Maid RPG and things like it can do well - anime and manga are after all depressingly and bewilderingly popular with the young folk these days. What's also needed, of course, is something for young boys to get interested in. I liked Fighting Fantasy and Basic D&D as a kid because they were about killing things with a sword and general-derring do. I don't know if similar products aimed at boys exist, these days.

Friday 17 July 2009

Map of Leon

Another Pendragon map. This is the County of Leon.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Some designers get it, some don't. And bears shit in the woods, too.

Some interesting stuff floating around the blogosphere. Kevin Siembieda, I would submit, gets it:
Everyone is NOT created equal. These attempts at ‘game balance’ with characters that are all pretty equal may sound correct, but all they do is create an illusion of balance and fairness that ultimately creates (in my opinion) dull, boring, “cookie cutter” characters that lack personality and excitement, especially in a “storytelling game.” And role-playing games are all about storytelling and characters. Character who must think and be clever, cunning, make bold and daring moves, take chances, face impossible odds sometimes, and pray for a touch of luck via the roll of the dice.

J. Tweet, I would submit, doesn't:
[Swords & Wizardry has] too much arithmetic (5% XP bonus, copper pieces, etc.), wonky XP progression per class, too-random character creation, and poor class balance. It also has the problem that didn't get fixed until 4e: all spells are daily, which makes spellcasters play too differently from the fighters.

Big news: Some game designers talk sense, some don't. In my next post I will exclusively reveal that the Pope is not a Dutchman.

The Six Counties

A map of Brittany, for the Pendragon campaign I'd like to run. The trees look a bit like mushrooms, I suppose, but you get the idea.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Giving up on Erikson

I gave up on House of Chains last night. My annoyance with various flaws grew to a head, and eventually there came a (minor) 'jump the shark' moment which made me decide to put the book away and never pick it up again. I was about 200 pages from the end of the 1000, but oddly I feel no compunction to carry on. I don't care what happens.

This is a first for me. I fairly often start books but don't finish; usually this is because due to general business I have no time to read for a few days and lose the thread of the story. (I'm sure this happens to everyone.) But on this occasion it was pure and simple dislike for the book. More specifically, the characters.

I've read and enjoyed plenty of books which have unlikeable characters. Many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are unlikeable, for instance. However, with George R. R. Martin this is clearly by design - and in their very unlikeableness there is a kind of charm and charisma in the characters which makes you interested in them all the same. They're three-dimensional, is why.

Erikson's characters, however, are unlikeable by accident - by which I mean that I think the author is trying to present us with sympathetic and 'cool' people, but they almost universally turn out to be pretentious, insufferable bores - spouting cod philosophy, navel gazing endlessly, uttering supposed profundities, and using words and phrasing which no human being ever uses in conversation if they aren't a precocious teenager trying to impress their English teacher. That would perhaps have been forgiveable if the characters weren't also such ciphers. At almost no stage does the behaviour of any of the cast seem credible as a description of how a human being would behave in the given circumstances. (There are I think two exceptions to this - i.e. two characters who do seem like real people.) Rather, they seem to behave as if totally aware that they are in a fantasy novel and must advance the plot according to the author's predetermined plan.

Erikson's politics also seem to permeate the story to its detriment, in my opinion, which is a cardinal sin. I don't believe this is overt, but it is certainly noticeable if (like me) you don't share his politics. I don't want to have a political debate in the blog, but I'll note that with many of the best fantasy/sf authors whose political views are well known (Gibson, Wolfe, Martin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Le Guin, Heinlein etc.), you could read the books and either not notice the political subtexts (either because the craftsmanship is so good or because the writer is trying their damnest not to express them) or not care (because the story is so gripping and the characters so engaging). The first of these is true of A Song of Ice and Fire - Martin never allows his story to be about anything other than the characters; the second is true of for instance Starship Troopers - the politics are overt but hey, it's still a rip-roaring read whether you agree with them or not. Neither of these things are true of 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen'.

Finally, I have issues with Erikson's tone, which continually seems to be groping for the profound, the weighty, the important. This becomes grating very quickly if you're a fan of writers like Carver, Chandler and Hemingway, like I am.

Nevertheless, my quest for a Good Fantasy Series continues. Yesterday I bought something called Acacia: The War with the Mein on impulse. It's new (2007) but I understand there are to be plenty of sequels. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday 13 July 2009

Pendragon en Bretagne

I believe I'd like to run a Pendragon campaign set in Dark Ages Brittany (or Vriezh, or Bretagne, depending on your linguistic persuasion). In my opinion it is more or less perfect for what the game is geared for, with a little bit of added exotic flavour. Here are the key items of interest:
  • There was no central authority in Brittany for many centuries up to the 9th. Instead, there were a number of regional counts jostling for control. This makes for a nice bit of internal strife between petty noblemen, and plenty of opportunity for behind-the-scenes scheming for power.
  • Brittany had more or less the same roots as the Arthurian Britain which the core rules describe, being founded by Romano-British migrants and being of Celtic culture and blood.
  • It faced more or less the same threats which the Britons faced. From the East there came Germanic invaders bent on conquest (the Franks, related to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes); from overseas came Viking raiders and later the Normans. Ultimately, there was tragic defeat and suppression.
  • The Breton language looks and sounds really cool, full of 'z's and 'h's in interesting places. Viz: "Un urzhiataer zo gantañ", "Ra zeuio ho Rouantelezh."
  • If you play as a Bretonnic Knight you get to beat up loads of garlic chewing, frog leg eating, onion wearing, moustache twirling, snail fancying Frenchmen.
  • When it was united as the Duchy of Brittany (Dugelezh Vriezh, Duché de Bretagne), one of its earliest Dukes was called Conan.
Can't argue with all that now, can you?

(I like the French really.)


Still crippled by what I think is swine flu (could be yellow fever or SARS) and unsure if I will live to see tomorrow, I just bought and downloaded a pdf of Pendragon, 5th Edition.

First impressions: Where have you been all my life? Can't wait to play it, and can't remember the last time I was this excited by just reading through a few random bits and pieces of a game book. I feel slightly invigorated and may even be able to venture from my death's bed later today.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Feudal Management And Tarot

I have a bad cold today so I'm not going out. I told my wife that it was probably a particularly virulent strain of swine flu and she should stay at home and nurse me from death's door by catering to my every whim, but the heartless woman went to work instead. So instead I'm sitting alone listening to the cricket on the BBC and thinking more about feudal management.

I have a longstanding interest in using playing cards in games. Here's my latest idea for that.

You play your feudal management game - something like Pendragon, Dragon Warriors or AD&D 2e is preferable for the mechanics of the adventuring portion, and you use your own rules or crib those from Pendragon Book of the Manor (thanks to sirlarkins for that), Houses of the Blooded, Birthright or LUG Dune or whatever for the actual resource management bit.

In my mind it would run something like this: the game is divided into "game years" and each year has four seasons. In each season one traditional adventure can be freely undertaken, and a number of management tasks can be completed (though these have a role playing component rather than a boring "I build a new castle" affair). But each season you also randomly determine weather (is the season ordinary, severe or mild?) and a Big Event.

For the big event you could simply roll a d1000 and consult a gargantuan chart, but the thought struck me: wouldn't it be both weird and fun and also rather in keeping with the medieval feel to use randomly drawn Tarot cards to determine these events? (I feel compelled to say I think Tarot as a means of divination is utter bunkum but I find the concept interesting.)

Here's an example: It's winter. The player draws a Major Arcana and comes up with The Heirophant. This means that the table concerning education, knowledge, conservatism and tradition is to be consulted. The player then draws a Minor Arcana and gets the 10 of Wands. The DM consults the Heirophant table, and finds that the 10 of Wands taken with the Heirophant means that the clergy are up in arms pestering the player to build a new library (or whatever).

The problem with this is that it would require a shitload of tables: 22 tables for each Major Arcana, each with 56 entries means...1232 separate possibilities. Repetition is therefore unlikely, but coming up with 1232 different events is a task that I frankly balk at. Maybe many of the entries could be blank, representing the fact that something doesn't happen every single season?

Saturday 11 July 2009

Random Blathering About Feudal Management Gaming

I've long harboured an urge to run a game about managing a feudal realm. Obviously Birthright is geared towards this. But I'm thinking of doing one of those annoying smart-alecky mashup things, probably involving Dragon Warriors (for the in-character level) and the "Seasons" rules cribbed from Houses of the Blooded for the resource management bits (shorn of any setting, because I despise the Houses of the Blooded setting the way I despise the Australian cricket team).

The first great difficulty with a feudal realm management game is intertwining the resource management bit with the role playing. How do you keep them integrated and stop it turning into a pen & paper and inferior version of Crusader Kings?

Clearly, random events help with this. "This month ... [sound of dice rolling] ... you recieve news that orcs are invading... [sound of dice rolling] ... from the south ... [sound of dice rolling] ... and a dragon destroys the village of ... [sound of dice rolling] Riverbridgetownplace." [Cut to in-character mode as the PC goes out a-orc-or-dragon-killing.] So of course does good improvisation on the part of the DM. (The character wants to clear some forest for farming so he can increase the population of his realm and get more money. Okay, go and persuade the headman of the nearest village to get his men to do that rather than, you know, do the work they have to do to survive. But it turns out the headman is a werewolf! Or whatever. Something better than that, preferably.)

The second great difficulty with a feudal management game is keeping all the players happy. Because whatever happens it's likely you'll end up with some level of irritation: you'll have to have one player be the boss of the others (if you're just playing in one realm, because that's inherent in the feudal system); you'll have to take 'turns' while the different players do different things (in the case of a number of different realms, or if you're in one realm with players taking different responsibilities); or you'll have to do something incredibly artificial (having all the players doing the same things together all the time, which is enough of a stretch when they're just dungeoneering, let's face it).

This is more difficult to solve. Playing PBP or playing one-on-one would seem to help, but the traditional group is going to find it tough to make the feudal management game work effectively. This makes noisms cry.

Friday 10 July 2009

Fin de XXe Siècle Bastardising Geekism and the Poor Apostrophe

I'm reading House of Chains, one of Steven Erikson's 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' saga. (It's the first one I've read but happens to be the fourth in the series. I chose it more or less at random; my English bookshop in Tokyo has a haphazard approach to stocking fantasy series in any sort of order.) It's... a qualified 'good'. I loved the first 200 pages or so, which was a fine romp of purely distilled ultraviolence and general mayhem. But as it's gone on it has become insanely complicated and over-elaborate, and the tone of the writing has become increasingly overwrought and precious. It's gripping, but has none of the emotional investment of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Two things chiefly interest me about it:

1) It's very much a product of that nameless phenomenon which we'll call for the sake of argument "Fin de XXe Siècle Bastardising Geekism". What I mean by this is the tendency for late 20th/early 21st century geek culture to grab references from genre fiction, films, comics (Western and Japanese), computer games, TV series, D&D and real-world mythology, then mash them all together into an incoherent and unholy mix, and let it loose on an unsuspecting world.

House of Chains is a classic example. The characters all sound like Conan when they talk; they fight like the far-too-big-sword-wielding waifs of the Final Fantasy series of video games; many are vaguely reminiscent of figures from Greek and Norse myth; they are all 'teh awesome' to some degree; most of the female characters are of the "I can fight just as well as a man and also I'm really hot like Buffy" variety; it has that obsession with the minutiae of the setting which categorises all geek pursuits from Star Trek to Dragon Ball Z and which sometimes feels like stamp collecting; there is no cultural coherence to the setting, but elements of European, Mesoamerican and Asian cultures seem to have been thrown together in an ad hoc manner to create something altogether mongrel; there is no real moral compass except for a vague understanding that the 'heroes' aren't quite as nasty as the villains (for example, the 'heroes' might kill innocent people at random, but hey, at least they don't perform genital mutilation on pre-teen girls).

Which isn't to say it isn't an enjoyable read - rather, I would say it is amusingly representative of a noticeable cultural trend. You can see this trend, of course, in D&D; most of the above remarks about 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen' seem like a great fit for the general ethos of 4e (though of course not all 4e campaigns), and I wasn't at all surprised to find out that the series is all based on a long-running GURPS Fantasy campaign that Erikson participated in.

2) Erikson is described in the liner notes as a man who spent "nearly" twenty years as an archaeologist and anthropologist. What he certainly doesn't seem to be is a linguist.

Mark Rosenfelder makes the interesting point in his language construction kit that:

If you don't know another language well, you're pretty much doomed to produce ciphers of English...If all you know is English, you'll tend to duplicate the structure and idioms of the English vocabulary....

Non-linguists will often start with the alphabet and add a few apostrophes and diacritical marks. The results are likely to be something that looks too much like English, has many more sounds than necessary, and which even the author doesn't know how to pronounce.

To elaborate: monolingual people by definition don't have a conception of how speakers of other languages produce sound. Their experience and knowledge of language is limited to their own. This is perfectly fine and natural, but it means that if they ever try to come up with new words and new languages, they have a dearth of knowledge from which to draw, and their creations have a consequent dearth of interest. This remark could almost have been tailor written for the world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Because for all of the much-trumpeted depth of its setting it is shockingly English in its vocabulary and lexicon. The place and character names just don't sound credible; they are the product of an English speaker trying to sound exotic, not of a different tongue.

Many fantasy authors are well aware of this problem and try to compensate in various ways. Erikson is no exception. In his case it has led to two things:

a) Lazy shorthand references to the real world. For example, an area of the Malazan world is called "Darujistan". It's vaguely Central Asian in flavour and a bit desert-y and exotic, so hey, stick -stan on the end and everybody gets that flavour immediately, right? Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Waziristan, Darujistan... Except here's the thing. The suffix -stan comes from a real world language or group of languages (the Indo-Aryan group). The suffix would therefore hardly exist in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen as a means of identifying a place or region, unless the author would have us believe that Indo-Aryan languages are spoken there. So it doesn't make any internal sense.

Now, I can hear the argument already forming on somebody's lips: Who cares? Because although this lazy shorthand (-stan = desert-y Central Asian place, so there's no need to bother coming up with a proper flavour for it) doesn't make sense, at least it works for the English-speaking reader. They get the drift, and that's all that matters. Well yes, I'd agree, except that when reading this series one gets the overriding sense that both publisher and author seem to be playing up the sheer depth and quality of the feat of world building that the books represent. If you're going to take that angle you'd damn well better follow up on it by actually producing a great feat of world building. Using "-stan" to represent generic desert-y Central Asian place doesn't cut it.

b) Abuse of the apostrophe. N'ow, th's 'is a com'mon pheno'men'n in much crappy fantasy lit, frequently encountered whenever an author is trying to make names seem exotic. But by Christ does Steven Erikson use it a lot. T'lan Imass. 'Siballe. L'oric. Sha'ik. Ah, the words just roll of the tongue don't they? Don't they? No, they fucking don't. They are a pain in the arse to read, an even worse pain in the arse to try to imagine the sound of (how in God's name does one prounounce 'Siballe and how is it different from Siballe?), and a constant annoyance which trips up the flow of the writing.

The abused apostrophe is the last resort of the English monolingual who is trying to create exotic sounds. Another lazy shorthand. I find it unusual, however, not to say astounding, that a qualified anthropologist would use it. The one thing you would expect from such a person would be a credible looking language, right?

In any case, this is not to say that the reading experience is not enjoyable. House of Chains is a genuine page-turner. It's also a cultural artefact which in a hundred years will I'm sure be seen as exemplary of certain trends within the arts during our era. What it isn't is a "a fantasy world as rich and detailed as any you're likely to encounter", which is what it says on the tin.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Miscellaneous Barriers to Progress

I'm still mucking around with some basic Yoon-suin-related bits and pieces. Current barriers to progress are:

  • Slugman and crabman classes. I've already decided that slugmen are essentially mage/priest mixtures and crabmen are fighter types. But coming up with XP progressions, spell lists, saving throws and the like is a fiddly task that I frankly can't be bothered with at the moment.
  • Maps. I have maps drawn up freehand on paper, but they are not hexified, and I lack the artistic capabilities to come up with really nice looking maps using a computer.
  • Art generally. Let's face it, I can't really draw.
  • Format. My heart wants to go with an encyclopedia, with the conceit that it was written by explorers to Yoon-suin who gathered together first-hand accounts, scientific and philosophical treatises, and extracts from journals - with just a minimum of crunch in an appendix at the back. I'm not sure how practical that will be, though.
  • Accesibility. I have a tendency to let creativity get the better of me. Too many unpronouncable words and alien concepts might become problematic.
  • Time. This is a problem with which I'm sure you are familar.

Sunday 5 July 2009

This is all very ridiculous shaped.

I'm prepared to accept that 4e is a fun game to play, but its most rabid fanbois don't make it easy to love. Take a look at this thread, which explains the new jargon categorising character classes as 'A' shaped, 'V' shaped, 'Y' shaped and 'MAD'. Am I the only one who pictures the comic shop owner from The Simpsons explaining all this? "No, you pathetic moron, 'V' shaped means the class has one attack stat and two secondary stats, and 'Y' shaped means it has two choices for attack stat and one as secondary! And you call yourself a D&D player?"

Lord help us. Does anybody remember a time when you just picked a character class because it's what you happened to fancy playing this time around? I wonder when it all became so very serious - like it really matters that you pick the optimum character to fit into the optimum group. As if that sort of thing has any impact at all on how fun the game is.

Friday 3 July 2009

Yapefulu the Skinner

The jungles of Yoon-Suin are haunted. Ghosts lurk in their darkest places. Some of them are the spirits of travellers and explorers lost in the forest. Others are entities of a more ancient and unearthly heritage. One of these is the being called Yapefulu the Skinner. He makes his home in the jungle canopy and comes down to the forest floor at night, searching for human prey. Those he captures he skins alive; their cries of pain echo through the jungle night. The skins are then hung in the high branches of the forest. Nobody knows what Yapefulu does with the flesh and bones.

Those who have seen Yapefulu describe a creature like an ape, yet thin and wasted, featureless and black like shadow. His eyes are like tiny stars shining in the darkness.

Yapefulu the Skinner

Armour Class: 1
Hit Dice: 9**
Move: 150' (50')
Climbing: 120' (40')
Attacks: 2 claw
Damage: 1d10/1d10
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F9
Morale: 11
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 10
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 2300

Special Abilities: Immunity to Normal Weapons, Paralysis.

If Yapefulu manages to paralyse a victim he will attempt to grab that person and climb up into the trees. He has an effective STR score of 18. Once the victim has been carried up into the canopy (usually 120') he is lost. Companions can attempt to free the victim from Yapefulu's grasp with an opposed STR test.

Thursday 2 July 2009

The Beasts from the Holes of Làhàg

Làhàg is famous for its pits - huge holes, up to a mile across and two hundred yards deep, which plunge down into the forest floor. Their floors are carpeted with jungle vegetation, and their walls are lined with caves which, it is said, link together under the surface of the earth in a vast labyrinthine network.

Strange beings -
unable or unwilling to climb to the surface - lurk in the holes and in the caves which link them. They are nameless entities without discernable language or culture. They create nothing and have no apparent emotion. They exist only to eat, which they do with reckless abandon - anything living which comes into the holes is attacked and devoured unless it is strong or fast enough to escape.

The sage ¡Yi Klu of the Explorer's Cult did much work to study the beasts - until they brought about his end. His journal was taken back to the Cult's library by his assistants, where it is still very occasionally read. He describes the beasts as "somewhat like a fanged frog, somewhat like an octopus, and somewhat like a man, though with a cruel and uncaring nature all of their own."

The Beasts from the Holes of Làhàg

Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2+2
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks: 1 bite, 2 tentacle
Damage: 1d6/1d4/1d4
No. Appearing: 2d6 (2d12 in lair)
Save As: F1
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 7
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 25