Thursday 31 December 2015

Generic Cyberpunk 2020 Bastard System: Fantasy Edition, Pt. III: Semi-Coherent Ramblings About Magic

You may remember that in previous posts (here and here) I discussed using the CP2020 rules as the basic for a gritty, tactical fantasy RPG more akin to RuneQuest and Rolemaster (or CP:2020, for that matter) than D&D.

I still think this project has legs for private games (I wouldn't publish such an abomination), and these thoughts were resurrected after playing Blade of the Iron Throne the other day. BotIT is an odd beast - a sort of amalgamation of the most storygamish storygames you can imagine, and Rolemaster combat but with the complexity dialled to 111, let alone 11. (It even has hit locations within hit locations.) It was a bit too much for me to get my head around as a player, but I enjoyed it, and remembered that there is a lot of fun to be had in the places where RPGs begin to look like wargames: Rolemaster, CP:2020's Friday Night Firefight rules, Warhammer FRP 2nd edition, etc.

I had previously stumbled over how to create a magic system, however. I have come to realise that, fundamentally, I mistrust and despise magic systems which involve rolling and hitting a target number in order to cast a spell. I can't think of much else that would banalify something which should be anything but. Yet CP:2020 is at root a banalifying system - it is a 1980s/1990s game, and it doesn't allow much room for creativity: everything in it is governed by rules.

Nonetheless, there seems to be something rather awful about just creating a new magic system to tack onto the Generic Cyberpunk 2020 Bastard System: Fantasy Edition (GCp2020BS: FE), which would in a sense repeat the mistakes of the original authors and their stupid netrunner rules - otherwise known as the Let's All Drink While We Watch the Ref and Netrunner Character Roll Dice for an Hour System (LADWWWtR....etc.).

So it has to be something that I can retool from the existing CP:2020 rules. This probably means fannying around with Empathy/Humanity Points.

My basic thoughts for the GCp2020BS: FE magic user, then, is as follows:

Magic User

Only gets INT+REF to spend on skills; the other 40 points have to be spent on learning one of the types of magic, which are, for instance:

Sorcery/goety (magic used through demons, and demon-summoning)
Geomancy (elemental magic)
Necromancy ('nuff said)
Thaumaturgy (the working of miracles)

Once he or she has access to a school, a magician can do anything within its bounds - it's just a matter of learning the proper techniques and requisite materials (from a teacher, books, etc.). When casting a spell, the caster has to roll under his EMP on a d10 or lose a certain number of humanity points depending on how powerful the spell he wants to cast is. So if a sorcerer wants to summon a little imp familiar this might just be a d6 humanity point loss on a failed EMP roll, but if he wants to summon the Marquis Andrealphus, the 65th Goetic Demon, he might go completely insane on a failed EMP roll (8d10 humanity loss).

He also rolls against his fortitude (which replaces the "cool" stat) to see if he can control whatever he is summoning - unless he is willing to do weird ritualistic things, and/or is very experienced - you can sink IP into raising fortitude.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Death and the Most Important Thing You Can Do

My Dad died at the end of October. It's one of those events which you can't really predict the effect of on yourself, at all, beforehand (except insofar as banal things like, "You'll be upset"). One thing that surprised me was that it gave me a new found belief, maybe a faith, even, in creativity.

My Dad was a decent poet and writer. He had both poems and short stories published here and there during the course of his life, but never quite made it - a combination of a lack of focus and being easily discouraged, I think. Like a lot of very talented people, he had next to no faith in his own abilities, and I expect (like many of us) was able to pick his own work apart to the point at which he lost the confidence to show it to anybody else.

One thing that he always instilled in me, without my really noticing it, was an understanding that creating art actually means something. When I was a kid it seemed he was always talking about books he'd read, films he'd seen, exhibitions he'd been to, music he was listening to. He wasn't well educated, being a working class lad from Glasgow, but that didn't matter: I am currently sitting in my parents' kitchen writing this entry and, as in most rooms in my childhood home, it has a bookcase. On it, among dozens of others, are books by Michael Parenti and Javier Marias, Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, Jack Kerouac's The Sea is my Brother, a complete collection of Charles Dickens' novels, something by Zizek, and a biography of Joe Meek. Bear in mind, this is the kitchen. You don't want to imagine the living room or dining room.

So from childhood I was indoctrinated with the idea that writers, artists, film-makers, etc., are the best and most important kind of people; that engaging with the world through the creative arts is one of the best and most important things you can do; that in writing a book or a poem, or painting a picture, or whatever, you are making other people feel something, and that is one of the best and most important things there is. But I never really realised that I believed this too, until after he had died.

I do believe it, though. Now that he's gone and I realise we won't be having conversations about books or films anymore, I get it. The act of creation is, if anything, underrated. And if my father's death has achieved anything (what an awful thought), I guess it has made me appreciate that in a way which I hadn't quite previously. Which is all quite a roundabout way of saying, in 2016 I think you'll be seeing quite a bit more from me in terms of actual published projects.

I hesitate to do this on a public blog entry, but here it is anyway: the last poem my Dad wrote, in 2013. He was already quite ill at this point - he had a very rare brain condition which caused rapid deterioration in his faculties. So it isn't his best work. But it's an appropriate poem.


To fall silent.
This is the last great ambition
That no one achieves. Not
even after death.

As if nothing has stopped resonating
since the beginning. Not even when
we can no longer trace or recognise the living.
We live, alert to innumerable voices
Distant and unruffled
The feeble echoes of unrecorded lives
Whose cries have seethed
Since yesterday and for centuries
"We have lived and we have died."

Sunday 27 December 2015

Boxing Day Present: The Sorcerers of Ainhoa, Complete

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. 
Spell Book (spells sewn in silver thread on the inside of his scarf): Dancing Lights, Erase, Find Familiar, Friends, Push, Unseen Servant, Ventriloquism, Audible Glamer, ESP, Fools Gold, Pyrotechnics, Rope Trick, Invisibility, Magic Mouth, Scare, Phantasmal Force, Suggestion, Tongues, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Blink, Confusion, Fire Charm, Hallucinatory Terrain, Polymorph Other, Fumble, Distance Distortion, Telekinesis, Stone Shape, Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound.
Magic Items: Ring of the Ram (8 charges), Dust of Appearance  
AC 8, Hit Points 22, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4 (knife)  
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.
Spell Book (written on threads woven into her flower bouquet): Affect Normal Fires, Feather Fall, Light, Enlarge, Hold Portal, Spider Climb, Continual Light, Darkness 15’ Radius, Invisibility, Stinking Cloud, Web, Wizard Lock, Levitate, Explosive Runes, Gust of Wind, Hold Person, Haste, Lightning Bolt, Protection from Normal Missiles, Water Breathing, Dig, Ice Storm, Wall of Ice, Plant Growth, Fire Shield, Airy Water, Transmute Rock to Mud, Stone Shape, Wall of Force, Animal Growth. 
Magic Items: Chime of Interruption, Dust of Sneezing and Choking  
AC 9, Hit Points 19, #ATT 1, DMG 1d3 (stiletto)
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.  
Spell Book (a bundle of quipu carried in his sack): Jump, Push, Shield, Spider Climb, Feather Fall, Shocking Grasp, Darkness 15’ Radius, Invisibility, Levitate, Mirror Image, Rope Trick, Blink, Fly, Slow, Invisibility 10’ Radius, Dimension Door, Polymorph Self, Minor Globe of Invulnerability. 
 Magic Items: Beads of Force, Figurines of Wondrous Power (Ivory Goats) 
 AC 8, Hit Points 24, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4 (club)

Patxi, Magic User Level 7, Chaotic. 
Patxi is gaunt and gangly, always bare-chested. His barrel, which he carries over his shoulder as if it weighs nothing, sometimes contains hundreds of gold pieces, sometimes silver, sometimes copper. He likes spells which give him power over others.  
Spell Book (carved into staves on the interior of his barrel): Burning Hands, Magic Missile, Shocking Grasp, Enlarge, Charm Person, Push, Fools Gold, Stinking Cloud, Strength, Scare, Shatter, Detect Invisibility, Flame Arrow, Hold Person, Slow, Suggestion, Feign Death, Polymorph Other, Fire Trap, Fear, Enchanted Weapon.  
Magic Items: Iron Bands of Bilarro, Dagger of Venom +2  
AC 8, Hit Points 16, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4+2/poison

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.  
Spell Book (written on handkerchiefs he keeps up his sleeves): Affect Normal Fires, Charm Person, Dancing Lights, Magic Missile, Light, Nystul’s Magic Aura, Unseen Servant, Jump, Pyrotechnics, Web, Mirror Image, Knock, Levitate, Magic Mouth, Explosive Runes, Fireball, Fly, Lightning Bolt, Hold Person, Ice Storm, Wall of Fire, Fire Shield, Wall of Ice. 
 Magic Items: Scarab of Insanity, Pipes of Pain  
AC 7, Hit Points 19, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6 (short sword)

Hirune, Magic User Level 12, 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.
Spell Book (in a bundle of scrolls she carries around in a pottery vase): Detect Magic, Find Familiar, Magic Missile, Push, Shield, Sleep, Write, Tenser’s Floating Disc, Identify, Detect Invisibility, ESP, Knock, Leomund’s Trap, Locate Object, Ray of Enfeeblement, Scare, Strength, Stinking Cloud, Dispel Magic, Clairaudience, Clairvoyance, Fireball, Monster Summoning I, Protection from Normal Missiles, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Confusion, Charm Monster, Massmorph, Monster Summoning II, Wizard Eye, Wall of Fire, Ice Storm, Animate Dead, Cloudkill, Teleport, Wall of Iron, Contact Other Plane, Bigby’s Interposing Hand, Monster Summoning IV, Control Weather, Repulsion.  
Magic Items: Staff of Withering (12 charges), Robe of the Magi  
AC 4, Hit Points 36, #ATT 2, DMG 1d4/1d4 (dagger)

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.

[This is the completion of a post I did a very long time ago.]

Friday 25 December 2015

"What it does out at sea, no one can tell..."

"Supposing on Tuesday, it is morning in London; in another hour it would be Tuesday morning in the West of England; if the whole world were land we might go on tracing Tuesday morning, Tuesday morning all the way round, till, in twenty-four hours we got to London again. But we know that at London twenty-four hours after Tuesday morning it is Wednesday morning. Where, then, in its passage round the earth, does the day change its name? Where does it lose its identity?

"Practically there is no difficulty in it, because a great part of the journey is over water, and what it does out at sea no one can tell: and besides, there are so many different languages that it would be hopeless to attempt to trace the name of any one day all the year round. But is the case inconceivable that the same land and the same language should continue all round the world? I cannot see that it is: in that case either there would be no distinction at all between each successive day, and so week, month, etc., so that we should have to say "The Battle of Waterloo happened today, about two million hours ago", or some line would have to be fixed where the change should take place, so that the inhabitants of one house would wake and say "Heigh-ho, Tuesday morning!" and the inhabitants of the next (over the line), a few miles to the west would wake a few minutes afterwards and say "Heigh-ho, Wednesday morning!" What hopeless confusion the people who happened to live on the line would be in, is not for me to say. There would be a quarrel every morning as to what the name of the day should be.

"I can imagine no third case, unless everybody was allowed to choose for themselves, which state of things would be rather worse than either of the other two."

- Lewis Carroll, from The Rectory Umbrella, c. 1850.

Friday 4 December 2015

Review of The Chin P'Ing Mei

I recently read and finished the Chin P'ing Mei, subtitled in my version as The Adventurous Story of the Mandarin and His Six Wives. It's a naturalistic novel set in medieval China and written somewhere around 1590, but don't let that put you off - it is surprisingly readable, at least in my translation by Arthur Waley, and provides a fascinating insight into how people lived during that era. Essentially a social novel, it follows the travails of one extensive family as they rise, and ultimately fall, through the social ranks, and I found it both surprisingly psychologically realistic, especially in its portrayal of the female characters, and also amusingly weird. The characters are all recognisably and authentically human, and in some ways their behaviour is strikingly modern, but all the time you are reminded that this is China and China in 1590 was a very different place to Britain in 2015. (An example: towards the end of the book two women are brutally murdered. But the correct thing to do, to all concerned - including the police - is to leave their bodies lying in the roadside until their murderer is captured. Why? No idea.)

I was also struck by how Yoon-Suinish the whole thing is: anybody who had read Yoon-Suin and this would probably think I was strongly influenced by it. This is a society of bureaucrats and judges, poets, prostitutes, gossip and a certain louche depravity: everybody is after money and sex, but they do it with such decorum that it almost seems polite. I loved it.

Some observations:

1) I've never had six wives, obviously, but the depiction of polygamy in the book struck me as extremely authentic. The women are in a sense rivals, but also in a sense sisters. That fundamental conflict is very sympathetically portrayed: there is an astonishingly moving scene towards the end of the book, indeed, which encapsulates this, as a solitary wife who finds herself living alone realises her profound loneliness without the other five around (despite the fact that she spent the whole book wanting her husband for herself). And while the husband is one of the great fictional anti-heroes and an all round cad, bounder, and whatnot (I reckon he has somewhere around 20 sexual conquests in the book, and isn't averse to having husbands and rivals killed off or falsely imprisoned), you also get a strong sense of his charm. The author was a keen observer of human relationships.

2) The legal system is amazingly corrupt. All the judges are venal and investigators either stupid or amoral. Becoming a judge so you can do away with your enemies on trumped-up charges is a matter of course.

3) While strikingly modern in some aspects, in others it feels a product of a world with a very underdeveloped sense of what a novel should be. The plot is sprawling and has a kind of "broken back" structure in which, three quarters of the way through, the hero dies (that's not a spoiler alert - the chapter titles all tell you what happens in each chapter) and we suddenly find ourselves following the exploits of his dissolute son-in-law for the last portion of the book. The author also starts off by presenting us with a story which is apparently going to focus on Hsi Men, the hero, and his gang of male drinking partners. But within a chapter or two this is abandoned and the plot becomes more and more about the relationships between the different wives and concubines and Hsi Men himself. The drinking partners appear from time to time, but have basically no role to play in the story. It's as though the author slowly but surely became more interested in the wives than the men - and indeed that's where the reader's attention is gradually drawn too.

4) Sex. If you're a teenage boy I reckon this book would be like mana from heaven.

In any event, I strongly recommend tracking it down and seeing for yourself. It's a long book but nothing like the marathon that you might expect, thanks to the very breezy and light-hearted style of the prose and the breathless speed of the plot.

Thursday 3 December 2015

The Need to Delegate Imagination

There is a new TV series of Star Trek coming out, in case you've been living under a rock. I'm not quite sure what to feel about it. I am pleased in principle; I am not a boxed-set watcher at all (my TV watching is limited mostly to Match of the Day, live sport, and the odd quiz show or wildlife documentary) but I do own the complete series of Next Gen and DS9 on DVD. I don't do visual SF or fantasy, really, in other words, except for Star Trek.

And yet on the other hand there is so much that could go wrong. Everything in popular 'geek' culture at the moment seems (from my limited experience, anyway), to be dark - not to say grimdark. If the producers of this new series think that dark is the way to go for Trek, it will be a gargantuan error. Star Trek is and always has been fundamentally optimistic. It is not childishly or unrelentingly so, but the core message of each series has always been: humans (and aliens too, for that matter) can surmount problems if they work together. That USP shouldn't be sacrificed.

I'm also terrified that the "let's all have fun blowing things up in space and not think about anything too much" approach of the JJ Abrams films will bleed into this new series. There has always been derring-do in Star Trek but there has also always been contemplation. Its traditions are thoughtful. And promoting the idea that being thoughtful about things is good is so counter-cultural nowadays that sticking to its roots could really make the new Trek stand out.

All of that said, however, I do wonder why it is that I care. What is it about fans of a series, or book, that makes us so passive? We start off watching a TV programme or reading a book, and we start to enjoy it, so we keep doing so. We follow along. At some point, though, our attitude changes: we become in a strange way dependent on the writers. I care about what the new Star Trek series is like because I am sure I'll end up watching it and I want it to conform to my expectations. I am worried about what the producers might do to it. But why?

I still have my old Star Trek episodes. That won't change. And nobody will force me to watch the new series. Moreover, if the new series isn't to my taste, there is nothing to stop me imagining my own version of it - where a plucky kid from Merseyside captains the Enterprise and gets to shag Counselor Troi while exploring the Delta Quadrant or whatever. I can even write fan fic if I want. (Just to be clear on this: I don't.) I can play RPGs in the Star Trek universe with my mates or people on G+. Why do I delegate the imagination of future Star Trek series to a handful of writers and producers somewhere in LA, now that I know what Star Trek is and can think up my own version of it?

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The Heron Men

I am working on a new project for release early next year. Await further instructions. For the time being, however, here is a sample.

Heron Men

They live amongst reeds and bull rushes, on the shores of lakes and rivers. Long limbed, lurching walkers, with the feathered heads and beaks and sharp yellow eyes of the heron, and the gracile limbs of the man. Like the birds which are their namesakes they are patient and quiet; they prefer to wait for the chance to kill. Though they are neither great makers nor thinkers, their intelligence in the hunt does not waver; their eyes are as adept at spotting a chink in a man’s armour as they are at seizing on the silvery flicker of a fish darting from shadow to shadow in the shallows of a pool. During the day they scatter around the waterways to hunt alone or in pairs; in the dusk they gather together in their reed huts, and sit with their heads hunched between their shoulders to sleep, stooped against the cold of the night.

HD 1+1, AC 7, #ATT 1, DMG by weapon (spear, axe, dagger, club), ML 7, No. Enc.: 1d2, or 3d20 in lair with a 3+3 HD big man and two 2+2 HD shamans
*Heron men receive a +2 bonus to hit rolls
*Heron men are never surprised, and surprise opponents 5 times out of 6

Saturday 14 November 2015

The Death of HP Lovecraft

To write is to reach, through a pre-existing impersonality...that point at which language alone acts, "performs", and not oneself...

- Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

In case you've not heard, HP Lovecraft is no longer the model of the trophy for the World Fantasy Awards, because he was manifestly a racist. Long-term readers of the blog will probably be able to guess at my views on this, and I don't particularly have any urge to sally forth into the lists of online debate over it, but I do think HP Lovecraft is a fascinating illustration of the way "the absence of the Author", as Barthes put it, "utterly transforms the modern text".

There are very few authors I can think of who, more than Lovecraft, embody the way in which a text can go through Barthes' process of "opening up". Anybody attempting to close his ouvre off, to put a "stop clause" on it, by interpreting it as the product of a racist has to ignore the way it has been plucked from his grasp and transmogrified into something utterly different from anything he may have intended. We readers have created an extensive mythos which he never envisaged and which still evolves and develops to this day. We have turned his ostensibly most terrifying creation into a child's stuffed toy or a joke for crude political satire. We have re-worked his stories into terrible films. Those of us who are Japanese, Mexican or African have recreated his work through our own cultural lens. We have flipped his male-centric universe. We have based board games and hard rock albums on his stories. We have joked about Necrotelecomnicon and created dishes like "Eggs Sothoth". We have mangled it and stomped all over it, smashed it up and put it back together, over and over and over again, and that process only seems to gather pace as Cthulhu in particular becomes a kind of internet totem or touchstone for nerd culture. Just as any Reader takes the text and interprets it in his or her own way, we as collective Readers have done precisely the same thing with HP Lovecraft's work as a text - writ large and to the extreme.

And players of Call of Cthulhu, perhaps more to the point, individually and collectively do the same thing in miniature for every session they play. They run games set in NorwayAustraliaEgypt and Kenya and anywhere else in the world besides. They create new Old Gods, reinterpret existing ones, bastardise Lovecraft's stories and invent their own. They imagine themselves as black female Harvard professors, Chinese artists, Irish philosophers and English rugby players engaging in his world, and it doesn't matter in the slightest because the text is now theirs and not his. The man himself was a bigot and an appalling one. But his work as a text is constituted by us and not him, in a myriad of ways limited only by the number of individuals who read it and the number of interpretations they give it.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

A History of Violence

Violence is at its most shocking when it is presented as a matter of fact, without dramatic trappings. See examples below:

[Marsyas] stumbled upon the flute, which he had no sooner put to his lips than it played of itself, inspired by the memory of Athene’s music; and he went about Phrygia in Cybele’s train, delighting the ignorant peasants. They cried out that Apollo himself could not have made better music, even on his lyre, and Marsyas was foolish enough not to contradict them. This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo empanelled the Muses as a jury. The contest proved an equal one, the Muses being charmed by both instruments, until Apollo cried out to Marsyas: ‘I challenge you to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine. Turn it upside down, and both play and sing at the same time.’ 
This, with a flute, was manifestly impossible, and Marsyas failed to meet the challenge. But Apollo reversed his lyre and sang such delightful hymns in honour of the Olympian gods that the Muses could not do less than give the verdict in his favour. Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine (or, some say. to a plane-tree). It now hangs in the cavern whence the Marsyas River rises. 
-Apollo's Nature and Deeds, 1700 BC?? 
Egil was matched to play against a boy named Grim, son of Hegg, of Hegg-stead. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. But when they played together Egil got the worst of it. And Grim made all he could of his advantage. Then Egil got angry and lifted up the bat and struck Grim, whereupon Grim seized him and threw him down with a heavy fall, and handled him rather roughly, and said he would thrash him if he did not behave. But when Egil got to his feet, he went out of the game, and the boys hooted at him.

Egil went to Thord and told him what had been done. 
Thord said: 'I will go with you, and we will be avenged on them.' 
He gave into his hands a halberd that he had been carrying. Such weapons were then customary. They went where the boys' game was. Grim had now got the ball and was running away with it, and the other boys after him. Then Egil bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain. After this Egil and Thord went away to their own people.

- Egil's Saga, 1240 AD 
Thenne launcelot vnbarred the dore / and with his lyfte hand he held it open a lytel / so that but one man myghte come in attones / and soo there came strydyng a good knyghte a moche man and large / and his name was Colgreuaunce / of Gore / and he with a swerd strake at syr launcelot myȝtely and he put asyde the stroke / and gaf hym suche a buffett vpon the helmet / that he felle grouelynge dede within the chamber dore / and thenne syre Launcelot with grete myghte drewe that dede knyght within the chamber dore / and syr Launcelot with helpe of the Quene and her ladyes was lyghtely armed in syr Colgreuaunce armour

-Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory, 1485 
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing, in impassioned voices, whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy’s name. 
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai ——” 
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. 
-The Great Gatsby,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

The F. Scott Fitzgerald scene may be the most affecting of all of them. Not just because it's a man hitting a woman, which is quite rightly something that retains its capacity to shock, but also because of the efficiency of the description: Tom is quite deliberate in his brutality, and you understand that in just a dozen words.

It would be wrong to say I "like" violence in an RPG session to be presented in that sort of fashion, because that's the wrong word, but I think violence which is sudden, quick and matter-of-fact (even casual) is the most interesting kind. It is more realistic, but it also makes you reflect on the consequences. Not as in "Ooh, isn't it awful?" But as in, "Okay, the person is dead. Now what is going to happen, and also what did it mean?"

Friday 6 November 2015

Is Enthusiasm the Most Important Thing?

On blogs, discussion forums, and so forth, it's common to discuss all manner of DMing "best practices", which I'm sure people reading this blog will be quite familiar with. Some of the most obvious best practices for me are no railroading, rolling dice in the open, and never fudging a result. You will likely have others.

But I do increasingly wonder whether the most important thing is not merely enthusiasm. I work at a university, so I deliver about two lectures a week during term-time. There are all kinds of lecturing "best practices" which fill the instruction books and compulsory work-based-learning courses we poor saps have to do, but one absolute categorical, cast-iron requirement that rarely gets mentioned is simply that the lecturer has to be enthusiastic. He has to make the subject interesting, or the students won't engage, and while there are all manner of tricks for that, he can really get away with doing anything as long as he brings energy and enthusiasm and positivity to it.

(Now, of course, that requirement is subject to a lot of common sense caveats. If I am delivering a lecture on contract law and I talk enthusiastically and passionately about how to keep koi carp for 50 minutes, the lecture will not be successful. But you get my point.)

The same really holds true for DMing. As long as you are doing the basic things, I don't think it matters a huge amount as long as you are communicating a sense of interest to the players. I hesitate to use the word "fun", because that doesn't necessarily describe the sense that the DM wishes to convey; "interest" is broader and more appropriate. If you are interested in the game then nine times out of ten that's probably sufficient to keep the players interested too. I think back on good gaming sessions that I've enjoyed in the past as a player, and I can think of quite a few where things were a bit railroady or the DM was fudging dice results, but which I liked all the same because of what the DM brought to the table - literally and figuratively.

Thursday 5 November 2015

The Economics, Anthropology and Sociology of Small Press RPG Publishing

If you were going to caricature neo-classical economics you'd say that it's bullshit because people don't just act to maximise their wealth and react to economic incentives in their commercial behaviour. Actually what they choose to make, what they choose to sell, and who they choose to sell it to, is governed by all manner of irrational choices. This is perfectly true. People do things because they like them. Or because their father did them. Or because they don't think they can do anything else. And so on.

I listened to this episode of Econtalk with huge interest earlier today. It's full of fascinating observations, but one of them is that traditional economic textbooks and economic studies of the firm tend to start off with supply and demand: what determines how much stuff a firm produces? But actually this is in many ways the least interesting thing you could possible discuss, and ignores much more fundamental questions - how do people choose what market to be in? Why do they make the things they make?

Somebody could write an interesting article about the DIY RPG hobby. Here you have a selection of people around the world who are largely working on RPG products part-time, who are doing so mostly because they enjoy it (and partly because it makes them some money), and who seem to plough quite a lot of the profits they get back into the industry by buying other people's stuff. Customers buy products partly based on what is good, but also, I think, partly out of a sense of good will: there is a feeling of comradeship in the hobby that influences purchases. There no awareness of or care for economic profit - I daresay I could have made much more money using the time I spent producing Yoon-Suin by doing something else. But that doesn't account for the pleasure I got out of it.

Adam Smith was a genius because he understood this so well: we may "truck, barter and exchange" in some contexts, but actually things like emotion, reputation, and our sense of how others see us is of much greater significance in others. Yoon-Suin may not have been economically profitable, but it was certainly profitable in other ways, if you mean by "profit" the enjoyment of seeing the finished product (despite its flaws), the pleasure of hearing that other people are using it, and, let's face it, the ego boost that comes from people telling me it's good. There may have been an opportunity cost associated with the project (I could have made much more money doing freelance translation work) but think of the opportunity cost in pleasure associated with doing things that you find boring!

Somebody could write something very deep, rich and textured about the economics, anthropology and sociology of small press RPG publishing. They really really could.

Monday 2 November 2015

The Duke of Doves

In the cold, quiet halls of the Mountain, the Duke of Doves stirs. His shrouded heavy head rising from under sheets of purple silk which slowly fall away. He is the first of the guardians the Ancients left behind them as they journeyed upwards, and he has lain silent and sleeping for many years. Yet for the first time in a long eon he senses something: An entrance. It is enough to wake him and enough perhaps even to invigorate him sufficiently to remember the reason for which he was created. In the cold, quiet halls he feels life creep over him like the fingertips of a lover tracing over the dozing body of her man.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Adventurous History of The Mandarin and His Six Wives

Things are a bit tough at the moment so blogging will be light. But a trawl through a local antique shop turned up this book the other day, and at £2 it would have been rude not to buy it. Billed on the back as "the most famous of all Chinese classic novels" (though I'd never heard of it), it was apparently suppressed because of its "detailed descriptions of love-making and erotic fantasies" (phwoar). It centres on the life of Hsi Men ("a corrupt and amorous mandarin who dies of an overdose of aphrodisiacs") and his dissolute friends ("nine wild, smooth-tongued, useless fellows who kept him company in his debaucheries"). It is, it seems, relevant to my interests.

The eccentrically capitalised chapter headings are worth the price of admission alone. Here are some examples (the last is my favourite):

"While in his Cups Lai Wang talks himself into Perdition. Lotus Petal swallows Shame and hangs herself twice."
"Grass Snake and Road Rat administer a Thrashing to Doctor Bamboo Hill. Mistress Ping is inflamed with a renewed Passion for Hsi Men."
"Master Han makes the Dead live again in his Picture. The Groom Shu Tung secretly departs with swelling Sails."
"Gold Lotus abandons herself to a Slave. Astrologer Liu aids her with his Magic and does a good Stroke of Business for himself."

Monday 19 October 2015

Underworld Fortresses

This is a prototype for New Troy. It is an underworld location. As with Yoon-Suin, I am taking a tool-kit approach: there will be pieces of blank dungeon maps which the DM can position and fill-in as he or she likes. Each piece or template can then have its nature randomly generated.

For some reason blogger isn't displaying the table correctly when I preview it. You get the idea.

Great Fortress

Eldjotnar and hrimthursar rule the deepest parts of the underworld in their great fortresses of stone. Their struggles are unending. In summer the eldjotnar reign in flames and heat and the hrimthursar hide in isolated places. In winter the frost and cold of the hrimthursar has dominion and the eldjotnars’ power diminishes to nothing. In between there is constant war. Each stronghold changes hands, back and forth, with the passing of the seasons – the only constancy being the thickness and strength of the great stone walls, and the temporary nature of the allegiance of the thralls, which shifts like a sapling in the wind.

A Great Fortress is ruled by d3 giants (eldjotnar in summer; hrimthursar in winter; roll to determine in spring/autumn), who may be lovers, family members, comrades, or rivals. There are 1d100 loyal niflungar or rjufendr per giant. The fortress also has a population of thralls (in d3 groups), whose allegiance changes depending on who controls it.    

Use a Great Fortress template to plot out its layout, or create your own.

Thralls (1d3)
Summer/Winter Event
Spring/Autumn Event
Landvaettir (1d30x3)
The giants are reinforcing their fortress and the thralls are extra-vigilant (never surprised)
The rulers have all been killed in battle, leaving the fortress in anarchy
Lindworms (1d12)
The giants are away at war or hunting
The fortress has struck by an earthquake, flooding areas with lava
Dvergar (1d30x3)
A false sense of security prevails and the thralls are complacent (always surprised)
Large sections of the fortress have been reduced to rubble
Berzerkers (1d30x3)
A group of captives have arrived from a raid on the upper world
The fortress has been taken over by a dragon in its weakness
Trolls (1d12)
The fortress is plagued by a shadow walker
One of the groups of thralls is plotting rebellion
Hamingja (1d30x3)
A great feast is being held
The fortress has been flooded by melting ice
Saehrimnir (1d12)
The giants are plotting an attack on the upper world
The fortress is under siege by the opposite side
Ettins (1d30x3)
The fortress is at peace and rich in treasure (roll twice when determining treasure)
Enemy patrols in the area are seeking to employ spies or assassins
Thurse (1d12)
One of the giants has come under the sway of a Dis, who is now the real ruler
The fortress is divided equally between eldjotnar and hrimthursar
Roll again, double population
A group of einherjar have come from the glorious afterlife to do battle
There is civil war amongst the rulers (roll again if only one ruler)

Treasure Types: A, L, M, N, O

Friday 16 October 2015

About A Great Painting

This is my favourite fantasy picture - as much as you can ever have a genuine favourite piece of art, book, film, song, etc. It's John Howe's painting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it's been my home desktop wallpaper for a long time. I never get tired of looking at it.

I think partly this is just because the landscape is reminiscent of the kind of landscapes which I love and am often hiking or camping in: brooding, desolate moors. It feels like a stylised, approximation of somewhere wild in the British Isles, and if you like that sort of thing, the picture resonates.

I like the way Gawain's shield stands out - the stark white pentangle against black, set against the muted and predominantly green background. To me it's visually but also conceptually striking: the Green Knight is part of nature, almost as one with the background; the knight Sir Gawain is most certainly not.

I also love how Howe refuses to grandstand, which is a hallmark of his work in general: there's no melodrama. Rather the opposite. Sir Gawain looks almost nonchalant as he chats to the Green Knight. Something is going on, of course, but at the same time, it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things - the world is as it is and always will be, whatever happens. In that sense the atmosphere of the painting reminds me of Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the way it renders a profound myth humble.

This is reinforced by the horse over there in the bottom left corner. I love that horse. It has no interest in Green Knights, beheadings, struggles for power, broken promises. It's cold and lonely and all it wants is shelter. The painting is as much as, if not more, about the horse than anything else. An animal at the whim of man, dragged along on a quest, but still with its own quiet animal concerns. The picture says a lot about man and nature, and seems to my mind to reconsider how that theme is treated in the original poem, which of course contrasts the chaos of nature with the orderliness of human chivalry. The picture shows man as an interloper in the natural order of things, and his presence is ambiguous rather than ordering: the viewer's sympathy is not so much with the knight but with his poor old horse.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Odes to a Glacier Dungeon

It's been a long time since I inflicted some of my crappy art on the readers of this blog. (That's probably because I draw a picture of anything about once a year on average.) As an added bonus, this post also complains crappy poetry. I felt a strong need to write some haiku about a glacier dungeon.

It's a picture of "The Devil's Tongue", which is a glacier flowing into the sea. In the foreground you see the sea itself, full of icebergs. To the East and West of the ice face, where the glacier tumbles into the sea, are cold rocky beaches. The glacier itself cuts through mountains. In order to get into the ice caves inside it, adventurers must climb up the ice face into one of two entrances ("The Hag's Tunnel" and "The Old Sack Pit") or hike across the surface and enter through a crevasse in its top. This may result in death; I have the climbing rules worked out, and the next step is hypothermia.

The Tongue

The Tongue is cold white
Under white snow, whiter ice
So white yet so blue

Cold imbued with cold
The cold wind cannot enter
The cold wind which howls

The Tongue needs no warmth
The sun peers down impotent
From the cold white sky

Monday 12 October 2015

An Incomplete List of Glacier Dungeon Inhabitants

A while ago I had an idea for a megadungeon that was carved into a giant glacier or ice shelf, dozens of miles thick. As well as the normal inhabitants of a dungeon, PCs would have to deal with the brutal cold and environmental hazards such as collapses and so forth. I'm fairly sure I discussed it on this episode of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing; but in any event it's what I want to run when Patrick finally finishes The Veins of the Earth, using his cave system rules for icy ones.

Apropos of that, here is an incomplete list of glacier dungeon inhabitants. These are things that are either explicitly arctic/mountain/ice based, or logically should be so. (Monsters like crab-men should definitely be there: some of the biggest crabs in the world are found in the Arctic Ocean.)

Straight from the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual

Beholder and relatives
Cave fisher
Displacer Beast
Red Dragon
White Dragon
Amethyst Dragon
Crystal Dragon
Silver Dragon
Deep Dragon
Mercury Dragon
Mountain Dwarf
Galeb Duhr
Cloud Giant
Frost Giant
Mountain Giant
Hook horror
Ice mephit
Mind Flayer
White Pudding
Selkie (in glacial lakes)
Ice toad
Ice troll
Winter Wolf
Purple Worm
Giant bloodworm

Non-existent at this time but formed by putting the word 'ice' in front of a Monstrous Manual creature

Ice derro
Ice duergar
Ice drow
Ice marid
Ice ghoul
Ice ghost
Ice sverfneblin
Ice spriggan
Ice goblin
Ice hag
Ice lich
Ice werebear (were polar bear)
Ice medusa
Ice merrow (in glacial lakes)
Ice skeleton
Ice spectre
Ice sphinx
Ice vampire
Ice wight
Ice wraith
Ice xorn
Ice zombie

Straight from the Planescape Monstrous Compendia

Frost salamander
Ice paraelemental


Since, as any fule know, hell is a place of cold and ice, in the lower regions of the great ice glacier there will also be encountered demons and devils, who slip in from the Abyss or the Nine Hells. Also, magical constructs and undead can also make appearances.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Fuyit-Xa, the Wandering Sorceress of the Mountains of the Moon

Nobody has ever seen Fuyit-Xa in the full. At most can be seen a withered hand, a wizened face, a scrawny silhouette appearing in the window of her howdah. On the back of her giant tortoise steed she has roamed the high valleys and passes of the Mountains of the Moon for longer than anyone can remember; if she has aged at all in that span of time, it is only to grow slightly thinner and more wraith-like - sometimes she sinks so far into her howdah that she cannot be seen at all.

Her constant companion is the spirit of her long-dead daughter, Fuyit-Li. Li was beheaded for her crimes and on her death became a druj; she still to this day inhabits her own skull, which her mother took from the site of her execution. It sits on a cushion in a smaller howdah on the tortoise's back, and is lovingly polished and preserved by her mother's familiars. These are The Crow and The Drake, which serve as Xa's eyes and ears beyond the confines of her howdah.

Fuyit-Xa, 15th Level Magic-User

HP: 34
AC: 9

Typical spells prepared: Hold Portal, Sleep, Magic Missile, Detect Magic, Shield, Detect Invisible, ESP, Phantasmal Force, Web, Locate Object, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt, Protection from Normal Missiles, Dispel Magic, Confusion, Polymorph Other, Wall of Fire, Wall of Ice, Cloudkill, Conjure Elemental, Telekinesis, Wall of Iron, Death Spell, Create Normal Monsters.

Magic Items/Treasure: Staff of Commanding (12 charges), Ring of Seeing, Ring of Safety, Ring of Truth, jade necklace (worth 3,000 gp), electrum anklet studded with 6 opals (worth 8,000 gp); two bronze bracelets studded with topaz (worth 1,000 gp each).

Fuyit-Li, Skull Druj

AC: -4
HP: 86
#ATT: 1
DMG: 2d4

Special abilities: Immune to spells below 4th level; immune to weapons of less than +2 enchantment; attacks to poison (save vs. death); spoils all food, holy water and potions within 30'; sees invisible; can cast Darkness, 15' Radius, Silence, 15' Radius, Cause Disease, Animate Dead, Finger of Death 1/round at will; can create three temporary clones to attack enemies

The Crow, Familiar

AC: 3
HP: 8
#ATT: 1
DMG: d2

Special: Always wins initiative; can attack the eyes (-4 to hit; successful attack causes permanent blindness)

The Drake, Familiar

AC: 0
HP: 18
#ATT: 3
DMG: 1d2/1d2/1d6

Special: Can polymorph into human form at will; immune to spells below 4th level

The Tortoise

AC: -3
HP: 76
#ATT: 1
DMG: 2d8

(Hat tip: Greg Gorgonmilk for the photo.)

Monday 5 October 2015

On Caves

I went walking along a local beach the other day and discovered some caves. Naturally, I took a look inside; some of them stretched back a good 20 yards or so.

Despite the fact that it was reasonably good weather and the beach was busy with dog walkers and sea kayakers, and it was the middle of the day, it was nonetheless easy to be reminded that human beings are not made for life in dark places. More or less as soon as you enter a cave like this, you are out of your comfort zone: you can't see, it smells wrong, you feel disorientated and directionless, and there is a vague sense of irrational fear that something may be lurking in the hidden depths.

I think part of D&D's success can be explained by the fact that there is something visceral about the concept of being underground, in the dark, where there are monsters. We can all envisage how strange and disconcerting it is not to be able to see and not to be able to sense, in little subconscious ways, where you are and which direction you are going - through things like the direction of the wind, the position of the sun, or distant sounds. Instead you feel entombed, shut in, and your mind can't help but speculate that there is danger lurking somewhere near. Everybody understands that kind of experience: we know what it is like to be afraid and alone somewhere dark.

Would RPGs have been successful if the first RPG had been Traveller, or Vampire: the Masquerade. Possibly. But I think one of the reasons for D&D's intrinsic appeal is the fact that it is about dungeons: there is something primal there people get when they hear about it.