Monday 31 May 2010

History is indeed little more than the register of the crime, follies, and misfortune of mankind

The fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War Two.
- John Dower, from Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two

In the final weeks of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. The Japanese forces stationed there, mostly reserve units, were ill-equipped to fight against a Soviet behemoth honed by four years of war with the Nazis and possessing arguably the finest military hardware in the world. Within 11 days the Japanese Kwantung army had ceased to exist as a fighting force; 80,000 men had been killed and over 600,000 were taken prisoner. Along with civilians resident in Manchukuo who were also captured during the Soviet advance, the total Japanese captives amounted to 1.6 million people.

It is the fate of these 1.6 million people which Dower is referring to. By 1947 approximately 600,000 Japanese had been repatriated. More arrived illegally, smuggled from China in drips. But in 1949 there were still hundreds of thousands of people unaccounted for. From Embracing Defeat:

In the spring of 1949, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for...

...Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.

There has never been closure for the families of the approximately 250,000 people who are still missing. The issue has never been resolved, and the continuing poor relations betwen Japan and Russia (the two countries are still technically at war 65 years later) make it unlikely it will be for many years, if ever. Though this is only one of the countless crimes the Soviet Union committed, and ranks as one of the lesser of those in terms of numbers, and though the Japanese government of the pre-war era bears at least some of the responsibility for its soldiers being in China in the first place, it is impossible not to feel at least some sorrow for the victims and their families, who will never know what happened to their husband, father, uncle, brother, or friend.

In some respects it doesn't quite sit well to use this scenario as the basis for a campaign, but I can't help feeling that it would be a quite compelling concept - a small group of soldiers and/or civilians travelling across the vast expanse of Manchuria, heading in the direction they hope is home. Perfect for goal-oriented sandbox play in chaotic civil war China, where bandits, communists, mercenaries, deserters, and Soviet and Kuomintang military units are a constant threat, and the civil infrastructure has been degraded almost to nonexistence by decades of conflict and famine.

You would have to use something highly realistic to get the best out of it, I think - Twilight 2000 or GURPS, maybe. Then again the historically perverse aspect of my character wants to throw magical beings of Chinese myth into the mix too, awakened by all the blood and sorrow in the land...

Sex and The Risus

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Thursday 27 May 2010

Subway Station Campaign Settings

Faustusnotes may be utterly and obstinately wrong in every single opinion that he holds, and he may be a cry-me-a-river leftie of the most hideous kind, but he does make some interesting posts sometimes. (He's also managed to get into the Japanese gaming scene pretty well, which is something I never really did, although I mostly blame working weekends my entire working life for that.) Here's one, on using Osaka's subway station names as locations in a campaign world. I like this idea, although I don't like Osaka all that much as Japanese cities go (it has all the ugliness Tokyo has, but with almost none of the compensatory beauty that exists in Tokyo in pockets, although the people in Osaka are nice).

My stomping ground was always Yokohama, which in my opinion is the best city in the world in which to live. It's one of the few Japanese cities which has managed to reconcile itself with its post-1867 architectural heritage, so you get a feel for what the Japan of the 1920s and 30s would have looked like when you go there, and it has that friendly, relaxed, anything-can-happen sort of vibe that all proper big port cities have. It's also lacking in the sort of pretentious, arrogant wanker which really major world cities (Tokyo, Paris, New York, London) attract.

But the problem with Yokohama as a subway-station-name-setting is that it's a relatively new city, which has seen most of its growth very recently. This means its stations have the pretty banal, made-up sorts of names that most new, planned towns have. Sakuragicho (Cherry Tree Town), Bashamichi (Horse-drawn-cart Street), Chukagai (China Town), Fujigaoka (Wisteria Hill), Aobadai (Green Leaf Plaza)... these are not the stuff on which interesting campaign settings were built.

So there's little alternative than to look to Tokyo, which really hogs the limelight as far as interesting place names go (as in most other situations). Thus we have -

- Kasumigaseki, the "Misty Barrier"
- Toranomon, the "Tiger Gate"
- Karasuyama, the "Crow Mountain"
- Akasaka, the "Red Hill"
- Akihabara, the "Plain of Autumn Leaves"
- Sangenjaya, the "Three Tea Shops"
- Ochanomizu, "Tea Water"
- Kanda, "God Fields"
- Meguro, "Black Eye"
- Hiro-o, the "Wide Tail"

My favourite, obviously, is Yurakucho, literally "the town where there is enjoyment", which I think you'll agree is both intriguing and intruigingly vague.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday): Seas of Blood (XV)

Decisions, decisions. Down or sideways? You went for DOWN!!!!!!!!

But if you were hoping for something interesting, I'm sorry:

The cave finally narrows quite considerably into a jagged slit about ten feet long and two feet wide just enough to squeeze through. The murky water doesn't allow you to see what lies beyond. Will you slide your way through the slit (turn to 398), or go back up the cave and down the side-passage you saw earlier (turn to 136)?

Hmm, slit or back side passage... The choice that confronts us on so many occasions.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Why Everyone Should Have 3d6 For Stats

Following on from discussions here and here, I've been thinking about stats. Specifically: what is the relationship between stats and social status in a quasi-medieval society? Are all peasants cursed by their poor upbringing to a lifetime of dimwittedness and ill-health? Do all kings make the best use of the opportunities available to them and become highly educated and physically perfect? Does genetic inheritance limit ones horizons and capacity for social advancement?

I've written before about epistemic arrogance, and one of my pet peeves in life is the tendency towards know-it-all-ism on the part of academics, journalists and political commentators. (To hear talking heads rambling on about the future of the global economy - as if something that complicated is within the grasp of one mind to understand.) In fact, human society is grotesquely, exhuberantly, vastly, incomprehensibly complex. So much so that great thinkers from Weber to Marx to Luhmann have devoted their entire lives to attempting to explain how it works, and failed. The more you burrow into it the vaster it appears, and it grows, tardis-like, in complexity with each layer of its onion that you peel. The idea that one could make statements about "serfs" and "labourers" and "artisans" and "merchants" (or whatever social strata you care to name) as single discrete units with defined characteristics, other than those that are very simple and banal (e.g. labourers perform labour, merchants sell things) is hopelessly misguided.

What rolling 3d6 for stats for everybody (arranging to taste) in a given society does, is reflect great complexity in its beautiful simplicity. It denies that we can map social status to ability in any coherent way, and instead allows us to represent the fact that we can never really predict human ability by social class, beyond what we know by common sense (labourers perform labour and will therefore likely be strong, etc.). We can't expect that kings, guildmasters, priests and marshalls will have higher-than-average stats across the board than merchants, fishermen and soldiers.

What 3d6-for-stats also does is allows the DM to riff. The party encounters an innkeeper; the DM rolls 3d6 for all his stats. One of the scores is 16; the DM has to put it somewhere and decides to put it in Intelligence. So the next questions are: Why is this bar-room genius an innkeeper, and is there more to him than meets the eye? What is his role in the village? And why isn't he doing something else? Next they come across a guildmaster who ends up with a host of crap scores, including an Intelligence of 8 and a Charisma of 5. How come this guy came to the position he is in; is he the tool of powers behind the scene, or is it due to nepotism?

There is great creative power in random generation, particularly random number generation, that is not adequately tapped into by players of D&D (and I include myself in this). Embrace randomness, my children, and discover the secret of everlasting life.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday and a Week Late): Seas of Blood (XIV)

Having promised some sprites we would investigate a thieving Krell's lair, we were last time faced with the option of swimming directly to the lair or inspecting various holes in the cave's sides. Naturally curiosity got the better of everybody and it was unanimously decided to do the latter. Naturally, the result was annoying. (Though this has been the first leap-of-faith-and-get-arbitrarily-punished moment in this particular book, I think.)

Reaching randomly into a hole, you disturb an enormous eel, which savages your arm. Lose 1 point of SKILL. Withdrawing quickly, you continue your descent into the cave. Turn to 105.

Ah, good times, eh? It's interesting how, in the previous entry, we were invited to "look into one of the holes" and yet here we are for some reason described as "reaching randomly" into one... Fighting Fantasy books are like the worst DM ever.

The cave sprouts a large side-tunnel which disappears into murky darkness in front of you, while the main cavern continues straight down. Will you change your direction and take the side-passage (turn to 136), or continue down (turn to 148)?

Not the most interesting choice, admittedly, but have at it.

Log: 25 Days
Gold: 183
Slaves: 3
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 10 (out of 19)
Skill: 11 (out of 12)

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa

[I'll continue with the biblical stuff and Fighting Fantasy Monday tomorrow. Just had to get this down while the idea was fresh in my mind.]

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa are a group of six magic-users of unknown origin who travel the high plains, moving from place to place apparently at whim. Capricious and unpredictable, they are at times benevolent and at times cruel. On some occasions all six are seen together, at others they appear only in pairs or threes. Two of them, Izotz and Hirune, are never seen together unless all six are present.

From left to right, the Sorcerers of Ainhoa are Itzotz, Elixabete, Eguzki, Patxi, Zigor and Hirune.

Itzotz, Magic User Level 8, Chaotic.

Itzotz is handsome, aloof and silent, barely speaking and ever observant. In magic he tends towards illusion and phantasm, with which he horrifies or delights his victims.

Elixabete, Magic User Level 9, Chaotic.

Elixabete appears as a small and slight young girl in a faded dress, and is never seen without a bouquet of dying flowers. Her grey eyes seem to contain great age and experience. She favours spells which manipulate the weather or natural objects.

Eguzki, Magic User Level 7, Chaotic.

Eguzki is a corpulent man who is always dressed in the crimson outfit of a jester. He carries with him a sack, whose contents are known only to him. He prefers spells which allow him to teleport or disappear.

Patxi, Magic User Level 7, Chaotic.

Patxi is gaunt and gangly, always barechested. His barrel, which he carries over his shoulder as if it weighs nothing, sometimes contains hundreds of gold pieces, sometimes silver, sometimes copper.

Zigor, Magic User Level 8, Chaotic.

Dressed in flamboyant but pale blue robes, Zigor, apparently a small boy, is the most exuberantly magical of the group, ever ready to demonstrate his power. When he is not practising his magic he likes to dance, performing for food or money.

Hirune, Magic User Level 10, Chaotic.

Hirune is almost as a sister to Itzotz in appearence, though her skin is paler and her eyes sadder. Like him she rarely speaks, though she often sings in a melancholy and quiet way. She is the most powerful of all of her comrades, though she rarely displays her strength.

On encountering the Sorcerers of Ainhoa, the DM should roll a d3; on a roll of 1 two of the sorcerers will be present, on a roll of 2 three will be present, and on a roll of 3, all 6 will be found. The DM should roll a d3 to determine the mood of the sorcerers, with a score of 1 being hostile, 2 being neutral, and 3 being friendly.

Sunday 16 May 2010

The Mandrakes are Back in Town

A certain somebody called Scott, famous for his various setting blogs (Wilderlands of OD&D, World of Thool, and Ordained Dominions of Vologes), has returned to the blogosphere after a prolonged absence. This is big news, because Scott was one of the key early 'thinkers' (if I can use the term) of whatever you want to call this movement of people who like old games and blog about it. His weird and original settings showed the rest of us where a bit of imagination can get you.

Check out his new blog, Mandragora: The Mandrake March. The blurb:

Mandragora is a fairy-tale-influenced setting inspired by public domain sources such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, the works of Lord Dunsany, the travelogues of Sir John Mandeville, and especially traditional fairy and folk tales as collected in Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, presented with a healthy dose of 1970s and early 1980s gamer culture. Visually, I'm drawing inspiration from a variety of classic fantasy artists including Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Sidney Sime, John Bauer, and Henry Justice Ford.

Longterm readers of this blog will know that this is right up my alley, so I'll be eagerly reading Scott's new ideas.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Bel and the Dragon

[Blogspot is acting the goat, so for some reason I can't edit html for this post. This means I can't put it in my usual trebuchet font or use bullet points. Apologies if this causes you a stroke or mental collapse of some kind.]

Bel and the Dragon is an interesting little tale from the extended book of Daniel. If you're a good little Baptist as I was brought up to be you shouldn't view it as canonical, but really, who cares?

Bel and the Dragon (at least the most interesting part; there's also a retelling of the Lion's Den story tacked on) is actually two narratives. In the first one, Daniel challenges the cult of a dragon-shaped idol called Bel which is worshipped by the king of the Persians. The idol is made of bronze, but food which is left out for it each night is always gone by morning. The king believes this is because Bel comes to life at night. Daniel proves that it is because the priests and their families have a secret door through which they enter Bel's chamber during the night and eat all the food, and Bel is merely a statue. The priests and their families are then put to death. It is a rare moment of pure rationalism; Richard Dawkins would be proud.

In the second one, the dragon is real, and worshipped by the Babylonians. Daniel kills it by mixing a special cake mixture (true story) which explodes inside its belly. It's a brief and weird little vignette.

Here's what we can take from it:

1. In the first instance, I like the idea of the fake dragon. For one thing, it makes a real dragon that little bit more special if the PCs' first encounter with such a creature turns out to be a damp squib. For another thing, I don't think in all my years of playing D&D I've ever come across a fake Big Bad Evil Guy - I've never seen it turn out that the evil wizard/demon/giant/mind flayer is really just a hunk of bronze. And finally, I like the tricksy Hercule Poirot style solution to the problem on the part of Daniel.

2. In the second instance, I like the idea of a dragon as a god (or devil). I've written several entries in the past about the general dumbing down of dragons in D&D (to the point where first level characters in 4th edition can kill a white dragon). This is a great disappointment in my view - I want dragons to be special, just like I want dungeons to be special. It's in the title of the game, for Christ's sake! A dragon should be a mighty being of mythic power and malevolence. Leviathan, Fafnir, Glaurung. Not big nasty monitor lizard with wings.

3. In the third instance, in Bel and the Dragon Daniel shows PCs how to get creative. If you can't slay the dragon fairly, box clever and poison the swine. If you come across a sinister cult of devil worshipers, investigate whether you can disprove the entire premise rather than risk your life fighting. Think outside the box.

Finally, I really thing the book should be adopted in Protestant versions of the Bible because, let's face it, you can never have enough dragons.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

And while I'm light-blogging...

Take a look at the pictures here. The kind of thing was made for.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

You Have 4 Hours Left...

...from the time of this blog entry to download 6 entertaining indie games normally sold for $80, for whatever price you want to pay (and/or a charitable donation). No strings attached.

Nothing to do with RPGs, but I thought I'd put the word out nonetheless.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Dogs in Judea

While in general I take a dim view of "new school" hip-kids-in-skinny-jeans type games like Dogs in the Vineyard, I do think its core idea of giving the player characters real power (perhaps ultimate power) over the people in the game world is quite a compelling one. Essentially, it's a surefire way of getting the PCs to engage with the game world, each other, and their own characters' beliefs, in a very direct way.

If I was going to run it, though, I think I would set it up more like the Book of Judges, because:

a) There is more scope for smiting, and
b) You know, Samson killing 1,000 Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass, and stuff.

The Bible is a very underdeveloped resource for RPGs. I suppose you can put this down to two things - firstly, fewer kids these days being forced (like I was) to go to Sunday School every week, thus less familiarity with the source material, and secondly, a lingering fear of RPGs being seen as some sort of blasphemous satan-worship-enabler. But the Old Testament and the Talmud, not to mention the Apocrypha, are great sources of adventure (and vignette) material. I'll explore a few of these over the coming days.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Saturday): Seas of Blood (XIII)

Thankfully, none of you had to be ashamed of yourselves for refusing to help the sea sprites. Let's see what happens.

'A predatory Krell, which inhabits a cave under this vessel, has stolen the Skull of Salt,' explains the Sprite. 'This is our most precious relic, given to us by Father Sea, which, by its magic, keeps the sea and fresh waters of the world separate. We must have it back.' The Sprites give you a magic potion which enables you to stay underwater without needing to breathe, and then show you to the Krell's cave beneath the wreck. The entrance tunnel descends vertically into the sea-bed. Swimming down, you notice that the walls are heavily pocked with wide, deep holes. Will you continue swimming down into the cave (turn to 105), or stop for a moment to look in one of the holes (turn to 89)?

I love how matter-of-fact that is. Oh yeah, just a potion to let me breathe underwater. Ta for that. Cheerio then!