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?