Tuesday 30 December 2014

Of HD, Levels and NPCs, Cabbages and Kings

As a general rule, for human NPCs in games I tend to assume a default of being 0-level, with a single 1d6 HD. This includes anybody of any profession or background who isn't likely to have 'levels' in the strict sense - whether a serf or a king - because he's probably never gained the necessary experience. Magic-users, clerics and high-level warriors will have actual levels, just like PCs. Non-human NPCs simply have monster HD.

Why? I'm really not sure. It was simply ever thus, and I've never rationalised it. Nor have I ever really rationalised levels at all. Why not have everybody, PC, NPC, and monster, use HD, varying the dice used for PCs according to their class? Is it just because it feels better to say "I'm 3rd level" than "I've got 3 HD"?

Or is it because PCs are special in some sense - different from the rest? In a G+ post I mused that perhaps there are two categories of person in the world. There are the vast mass of humanity, who do not have levels and indeed cannot - although they might improve their skills slightly and/or come to possess fortunes and great power - or be born as royalty for that matter. And then there are the special ones, maybe minor demigods, plane-touched, faerie-blessed, dipped-in-the-River-Styx, annointed by storm giants, etc., who have this innate capacity to be something more than human (which a high level D&D PC undoubtedly is) even if they don't realise it.

I don't like the idea particularly, because a) the idea that D&D PCs are nobodies like anybody else but make it by applying themselves is innately appealing; and b) it sounds a bit like the plot of a bad YA novel. As a matter of fact I think it's a cabbage of an idea, and no, that's not even a remotely pathetic attempt at tying together an Alice Through the Looking Glass gag.

Saturday 27 December 2014

The Art of Describing a Monster

As we all know, one of the great delights of any fantasy, horror, or SF story is the descriptions of the monsters. There are a number of ways to approach this, but I've always enjoyed those of Lovecraft and his imitators, who tend to adopt what you might call the Nasty Adjective-Heavy Approach. Here, a distasteful adjective is used in such a way that it lets you know that something is horrible or being done in a horrible way, but letting you make up the details in your own mind. Take Clark Ashton Smith's description of Quachil Uttaus as one of the paradigm examples:

"It was a figure no larger than a young child, but sere and shriveled as some millenial mummy. Its hairless head, its unfeatured face, borne on a neck of skeleton thinness, were lined with a thousand reticulated wrinkles. The body was like that of some monstrous, withered abortion that had never drawn breath. The pipy arms, ending in bony claws, were outhrust as if ankylosed in posture of an eternal dreadful groping."

Get that nasty adjective? Quachil Uttaus doesn't just grope. Its groping is dreadful. You have to imagine what that looks like for yourself.

Lovecraft used this technique to strong effect - sometimes in a way that strays dangerously close to self-parody, as in the description of Azathoth:

"That last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity -- the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes."

I'm not sure what a "vile" drum sounds like as opposed to a normal drum, or an "accursed" flute as distinct from a flute, but it certainly sounds worse.

What Lovecraft and Smith are doing here is providing a spur to your imagination. What's "dreadful" groping? Better to let the reader imagine just what that might be like, rather than try to explain. While these monster descriptions are florid, they operate on the age-old principle that often letting the reader's imagination do the work is the most effective way to scare them.

Over-exploit this technique, though, and you're in trouble. Think of Lovecraft's description of the Byakhee:

"Here flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things... not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall."

What does that look like? Fucked if I know. It's not so much a spur to imagination as a bucket of water thrown all over it. There are too few dots, and they are too spread out, to really join up.

Similarly, this technique can go too far. Lovecraft's later imitators often fell into the trap of simply telling you something was scary or horrible without really detailing why. From Derleth, describing Zhar, the Twin Obscenity: 

"The thing that crouched in the weird green dusk was a living mass of shuddering horror, a ghastly mountain of sensate, quivering flesh, whose tentacles, far-flung in the dim reaches of the subterranean cavern, emitted a strange humming sound, while from the depths of the creature's body came a weird and horrific undulation."

Yeah, okay, we get it, it's a mass of shuddering horror, it makes weird and horrific undulations. We know because you're telling us. It's weak writing.

MR James wasn't averse to using a nasty adjective here and there, but he was at the opposite end of the spectrum - the Minimalist Description Approach. In MR James stories, you never properly see the ghost. It's always in the dark, or glanced at, or described by somebody who fainted and only dimly remembers. Often this method works best of all; James knew how to give the absolute minimum description necessary to get your mind racing to fill in the details. From 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'

"My dear Gregory, I am telling you the exact truth. I believe I am now acquainted with the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind. I can only just manage to tell you now the bare outline of the experience. I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several - I don't know how many - legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body. I screamed out, Brown says, like a beast, and fell away backward from the step on which I stood, and the creature slipped downwards, I suppose, on to that same step."

A cold face pressed against yours, with arms or tentacles or something clinging to your body - in a sentence or two he out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft and he does it with almost effortless ease.

A third approach is the bare-bones Just the Facts, Dammit! Approach, of which Zelazny was a great exponent. Zelazny's heroes are usually hard-bitten tough-guys (not like MR James' namby-pamby professors of theology from Cambridge) and they describe monsters without fear or emotion:

"There was something unusual about their appearance... For one thing, all had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the condition seemed normal. For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of their hands. All of them had prominent jaws (and) forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny. There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort." (Fiona's shadow creatures)
"It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were as thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. Its arms were longer than its entire body. It was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked."(The Borshin)
"It was well over six feet in height, with great branches of antlers growing out of its forehead. Nude, its flesh was a uniform ash-gray in color. It appeared to be sexless, and it had gray, leathery wings extending far out behind it." (Strygalldwir)

Finally, there is the Poetic Approach, which is the one Tolkien favoured. For Tolkien, evil means darkness, hunger, hatred, and above all self-destruction, and he tries to make this clear in his monster descriptions. Here's Ungoliant:

"[S]he had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness; and she fled to the south, escaping the assaults of the Valar and the hunters of Oromë, for their vigilance had ever been to the north, and the south was long unheeded. Thence she had crept towards the light of the Blessed Realm; for she hungered for light and hated it...In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished."

This occasionally gets Tolkien into difficulties, because he liked metaphors and nerds don't always understand metaphor, which is the root of of all those problems about balrogs and their non-existent wings. This hints at a deep problem with the Poetic Approach, which may explain why fantasy bestiaries in particular never use it.

[This post was largely inspired by one of Brendan's G+ posts.]

Wednesday 24 December 2014

There is no other relic of the disciplines of geography

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Borges's On Exactitude in Science has always been something that struck me as eminently game-able. (To be fair to Lewis Carroll, I've recently learned that the idea is more properly attributed to him.) A map with a scale of a mile to a mile which was cast aside as useless, but of which large fragments can still be found here and there - maybe themselves miles across. These map fragments are obviously not tied to their corresponding locations (the wind having swept them elsewhere) and over time have become refuges for exiles, hermits and outcasts - a sort of parallel world where things vaguely resemble what they purport to represent, but in a twisted and unusual way. A little like what I was playing around with in New Troy, but with a magic realist spin.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

And For My Next Trick: Queen Country

Imagine a vague fantasy simulacrum of medieval China, seen through a lens of Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", Marco Polo's accounts of his expeditions, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the legend of Prester John. Basically, picture what people in Europe of the middle-ages thought China was like, then layer on top a big slathering of romanticism, add a hefty dose of orientalism, together with a sprinkling of complete ignorance, and bake in an oven of Umberto Eco.

Then imagine that to the East there is a strange mountainous island which is permanently shrouded in mist and populated by militaristic, violent natives; innumerable ghosts and weird spirits; nature-based demigods; and dragons with underwater palaces in its seas. It is called the "Queen Country", but nobody knows why. Legend has it that in the North there resides a great Black Turtle, in the South the Vermilion Bird, in the West a White Tiger, and in the East an Azure Dragon. It's the Japan of the Nara period, but seen from the eyes of what people in our real-world China of 750 AD might have thought of it.

Now imagine what would have happened if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had this in mind, rather than Greyhawk, when they'd designed D&D. It's called Queen Country and it's what I'm going to publish after Yoon-Suin.

Monday 22 December 2014

Categorising Lovecraft

I've finally finished reading HP Lovecraft's entire bibliography (as a solo author). I'd read many of his stories over the years but in 2012 I took it upon myself to read all of his fiction, in chronological order - thinking it would be good for my long commutes. It turns out there's only so much Lovecraft you can read back to back before it all begins to blend together and you get an incipient migraine, so in the end it's taken over 2 years - but I've finally done it. I may write something vaguely useful about this at a future date, but for now, here is provisional categorisation of all his fiction into five categories:

Terrible and also make you feel dirty
The Street
The Horror at Red Hook

Merely terrible
Old Bugs
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Statement of Randolph Carter
The Tree
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermlyn and His Family (may belong in the "Terrible and also make you feel dirty" category - can't remember and can't be bothered reading the stupid thing again to find out)
The Moon Bog
Herbert West - Reanimator
The Thing on the Doorstep

Mediocre (from insipid to alright-ish)
The Tomb
A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson
The Doom that Came to Sarnath
From Beyond
The Quest of Iranon
The Other Gods
Sweet Ermengarde (assuming it is meant to be funny)
The Hound
The Lurking Fear
The Shunned House
He (I can't remember this one at all - it's a complete blank to me, although I know I read it)
The Strange High House in the Mist
The Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Descendant
The Very Old Folk
The Dreams in the Witch House

Worth reading
The White Ship
The Cats of Ulthar
The Terrible Old Man
The Temple
The Picture in the House
The Nameless City
Ex Oblivione
The Outsider
What the Moon Brings
The Rats in the Walls
The Unnamable (I can't quite make up my mind whether this is good or merely terrible)
In the Vault
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
Pickman's Model 
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Very good
The Music of Erich Zann
The Festival
The Colour Out of Space
The Dunwich Horror
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark

Tuesday 16 December 2014

A Hob-bite Size View


I haven't watched either the second Hobbit film or the third - let me say that from the beginning. I find it hard putting into words how much I disliked the first of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, and how much I cringe when I see anything to do with the other episodes, without coming across like an arsey killjoy, so I won't bother. Suffice to say the first film was stupid, loud, obnoxious, annoying, boring, and rang completely false against the source material, and nothing in the trailers or advertisements or reviews for the others suggested they would be worth watching to somebody who had that view of part one.

The best thing about the book of The Hobbit is the treatment of Bilbo. Tolkien doesn't often get credit for being an intelligent writer, but he was one: he thought carefully about what he was doing. He was writing a children's book and also a book that was very unusual for its time. He well understood that making the story all about Gandalf or Thorin or Smaug would be a mistake. There needed to be a human lens through which to view events in this strange world - somebody for children to empathise with. And that human lens came in the non-human form of Bilbo Baggins and his development from clown into hero. Indeed I don't think it's a mistake that the main character of the book is child-like in size. He's a small person in a grown-up world, and children can identify with that in a very deep and strong way.

Adults, though, who were children once too, also get that. I don't think reading The Hobbit would be quite as fulfilling for a 40 year old as it is for a 9 year old, but the effect is still there. If you've never experienced fantasy fiction before, the book functions as the perfect introduction because Bilbo's journey is a little bit like it: a person plucked from mundane reality and cast into something much stranger. 

RPGs work best, I think, when they adopt a similar approach. I don't think it's an accident that when you look at the most popular and iconic games - D&D, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, etc. - you notice that the expectation is that the PCs start off as close to children as possible: weak, small, lacking in power and knowledge.

The reason for this is largely mechanical or pragmatic - if players start off knowing everything and being all-powerful there doesn't seem much to do, and rewards for success are harder to come by. But the effect is that campaigns in those games have something of The Hobbit about them: D&D PCs, if they survive, very much tend to follow a Bilbo-like career trajectory. This, in turn, makes them easy to empathise with, and hooks the players into the game and setting just as the reader is hooked into Middle Earth. The child becomes an adult, the hobbit becomes a hero, the 1st level character becomes a 20th level one.

Game designers overlook this at their peril. Starting off powerful may seem AWESOME on the face of it, but it's not the right approach for lasting enjoyment and immersion.

Monday 8 December 2014

310 Pages of Possibly Incomprehensible Gibberish?

Let me tell you a story.

Long ago (in 2009) a young British man living in Kawasaki began doodling some pictures of slug-men in an idle moment. This dovetailed with a D&D campaign world he'd been running off and on in various forms for a few years, called provisionally The Mountains of the Moon, whose concept was in essence "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks".

The result eventually grew into something weird and terrible called Yoon-Suin. Over the following five years the British man made various rash and rather pathetic promises to release it as a campaign setting - each promise being less convincing and trustworthy than the last. During this time the idea morphed from a hexcrawl into something else entirely: a kind of toolkit of random tables, hex locations, bestiaries and rumours that, in the right hands, may come to resemble a living, breathing Frankenstein's Monster of a campaign setting - a Frankenstein's Monster with yak horns, leaving a trail of slime wherever it goes.

Looking at the final product (because yes, it does exist, and yes, it'll be available very shortly) the British man feels at turns proud and concerned. Proud because a heck of a lot of effort, willpower, creativity and yes, let's use a dirty four-letter word, love went into its production. Concern because the British man suspects that the neutral reader - i.e. everybody else - may very well view the thing as 310 pages of useless, blithering nonsense spewed from a rather unhinged mind. (And not in the good, creative way; unhinged in the sense of being mad enough to think anybody would be able to make sense of this crap.) The prevailing view may be, rather than "Wow!" or even "Hmm!", something closer to "Huh?" or even "Jesus wept".

But in any event, it's done now, and despite all the broken promises, the fundamental promise (that one day there would be this thing called 'Yoon-Suin' that people could get their hands on) has been honoured. That, the British man feels, is probably the main thing.

Suffice to say, Yoon-Suin is finished. I'm letting a few friends/comrades take a glance at it first, to see if they can salvage something understandable from it. But yes, in any case, finished. If you've ever thought to yourself "I want to be a slug-man with a crab-man slave", then don't worry: soon it will happen. Perhaps sooner than you think.