Monday 29 February 2016

More Thoughts on Fifth Edition

I ran 5th edition for the first time today. I'll do an actual play report tomorrow, probably, but thought I'd jot down some comments on the system itself.

The first thing is that, in play, the whole thing is quite simple and actually feels quite a lot like Basic D&D - at least, the way I ran it. It wasn't fiddly or annoying. Put another way, I found that I could just wing quite a lot and it didn't seem to matter. I liked that.

The second thing is that it takes a little while to get your head around the way things work because it uses terms like 'proficiency', 'spell slot' and 'hit dice', which existed previously, in a different way. That was an odd choice, I think, although actually the way skills and proficiency works is fine.

The third thing is that, as expected, the way hit points are abstracted is quite jarring. In the session, one PC was attacked by a dog and lost all but 1 hp. It is hard to think of a dog attack as being anything other than: it savages your leg. Yet because of the way the system works, the character was practically back to full hp after the combat was over because of having an hour's rest. Now, look, I know hit points have always been abstract. I know you shouldn't think of them strictly as being health. But still, "I've been badly savaged by a dog... But I feel a whole lot better thanks to having a nice sit down!" just doesn't feel right to me.

The fourth thing is that, Christ, 5th edition PCs are tough. The three PCs in my game basically made mincemeat of all opposition because of the sheer power and versatility of the new magic system and the (it seems) deliberate attempt to make it easier to get hits in combat at low levels. Not that I'm complaining - it just is radically not the D&D I'm used to, and requires a different understanding of what a starting PC actually is: they're not vagrant wanderers who are just starting out; they're already established heroes.

The fifth thing is really that I'm pleasantly surprised. There are aspects of the system I dislike, and I don't think it would ever be my default, but it's simple, smooth, and easy to blag, and really, what more could you ask for?

Friday 26 February 2016

Xu Fu, the Elixir of Life, and the Queen Country

Back in December 2014 I wrote this:

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.

That was quite a ballsy statement in retrospect. It isn't going to be what I'm going to publish after Yoon-Suin, it turns out. But still, I have plans for Queen Country.

Today I came across the legend of Xu Fu, an ancient Chinese sorcerer who was sent across the sea to discover the elixir of life, and is said to have ended up in Japan. According to the wikipedia entry:

The ruler of Qin, Qin Shi Huang, feared death and sought a way to live forever. He entrusted Xu Fu with the task of finding the secret of immortality. In 219 BC, Xu Fu was sent with three thousand virgin boys and girls to retrieve the elixir of life from the immortals on the Penglai Mountain, including Anqi Sheng, who was purportedly a magician who was already a thousand years old. Xu sailed for several years without finding the mountain. In 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang questioned him, Xu Fu claimed there was a giant sea creature blocking the path, and asked for archers to kill the creature. Qin Shi Huang agreed, and sent archers to kill a giant fish. Xu then set sail again, but he never returned from this trip. The Records of the Grand Historian says he came to a place with "flat plains and wide swamps" (平原廣澤) and proclaimed himself king, never to return.  
Later historical texts were also unclear on the location of Xu's final destination. Sanguo Zhi, Book of Later Han, and Guadi Zhi all state that he landed in "Danzhou" (亶州), but the whereabouts of Danzhou are unknown. Finally, more than 1,100 years after Xu Fu's final voyage, monk Yichu wrote during the Later Zhou (AD 951-960) of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period that Xu Fu landed in Japan, and also said Xu Fu named Mount Fuji as Penglai. This is the "Legend of Xu Fu" in Japan as evidenced by the many memorials to him there.

I was greatly taken with this, and also with this:

It makes me want to set Queen Country in an earlier time frame: the Japan of the Jomon Period, but seen through the lens of fantasy Chinese adventurers from across the sea. A place of hunter-gatherer tribes with strange burial mounds living on an island where gods and monsters are real - and in some distant corner of it, Mt Fuji, a Shangri-La-type location which has the source of eternal life...

(Weirdly enough, according to the Japanese wikipedia article, there is a twist to the legend of Xu Fu which suggests the sorcerer in fact represents one of the lost tribes of Israel, Joseph. But that is probably one twist too many.)

Wednesday 24 February 2016

The Myths People Tell

I've been interested in the Ainu for a long time. One of the things that is most interesting about Ainu history is how unknowable it is. In many ways the story of the Ainu very closely parallels that of American Indians or any other native people subject to colonial power - a tale of slow but inexorable loss. Yet accessing information about pre-colonial Ainu history and culture is especially difficult because their assimilation has been so absolute. From the late 19th Century the official line in Japan was that Ainu were simply "former aborigines" who were to be subsumed into the (ethnically homogenous) Japanese State. This meant the almost complete destruction of a way of life that was already under intense pressure. You get an insight into this from reading the Introduction and Prefatory Remarks to BH Chamberlain's collection of "Aino Folk Tales", written in 1888: by this stage, Aino culture was already "at its last gasp":

Even in religion, the most conservative of all institutions, especially among barbarians, the Ainos have suffered Japanese influence to intrude itself. It is Japanese rice-beer, under its Japanese name of sake, which they offer in libations to their gods. Their very word for "prayer" seems to be archaic Japanese. A mediæval Japanese hero, Yoshitsune, is generally allowed to be held in religious reverence by them.

Even the word which the Ainu used for "god" had by Chamberlain's day been replaced by a loan-word from Japanese - kamui, borrowing from the Japanese kami. In other words, this was a people whose traditions had already, by the time they were a subject of interest to anthropologists, been almost trampled into oblivion.

This means that even the folk-tales of the Ainu often seem to be hinting at a people who were trying to come to terms with a world which had radically and permanently changed. Take this story:

The First Appearance of the Horse in Aino-land.
A very beautiful woman had a husband. He was a very skilful fellow. Once he went to the mountains, and disappeared. But at night he returned, bearing a deer on his back. After feasting on the deer, they went to bed. But in the middle of the night, the woman wept and screamed, saying: "This man is not my husband. Though with shame, I will declare the fact as it is. His penis is so big, so big, so big, that it will not get into my vagina; and if it did get in, I should die." 
Alarmed by her cries, the neighbours ran out, and came into her house; and one strong fellow took a stick, and beat the husband, saying: "You must be some sort of devil," whereupon the husband turned into a horse, and ran away neighing. Afterwards he was beaten to death. 
The truth was that the husband had been killed and supplanted by the horse. That was the first the Ainos saw of horses. In ancient days every sort of creature could thus assume human shape. So it is said.

I'm only the most amateur of armchair speculators, but even so this tale strikes me as being fraught with subtexts (practically super-texts, really) about the collision between horse-riding agriculturalist invaders from the South and Northern forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and fishermen. I think it's fair to say that Freud would have had a field day with it.

In any event, I think it's hard to disagree with Chamberlain who, despite his pretty mean-spirited and patronising view of the Ainu, makes the excellent point that folklore is in part a kind of attempt at science - a way of understanding the world. Not explaining things, but processing them and internalising them. I think it's also much more than that and you shouldn't reduce it to something purely instrumental, but it seems to play that role amongst many others. In the tales of the Ainu, read in the round, you get a strong sense of people (probably subconsciously) trying through stories to get to the bottom of why their world was the way it was.

This all raises a question for me: what kind of stories would people in a fantasy setting tell? Given that folklore is not just a way of telling fun stories but a way of making sense of things, how would people do that in a world where there were actually dragons and orcs and elves and magic? That is, we human beings in the real world seem in part to have dreamed up supernatural events in order to form a perspective on various elements of our own existence. So what kind of stories would it be necessary to dream up in a world which actually really had supernatural events taking place?

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Things in the Spaces Where Adventure Happens

I yield to no man in my appreciation for the works of JRR Tolkien, but a certain aspect of his view of fantasy has regrettably become entrenched - especially so in D&D. This is that, while there might be orcs and elves and dragons in the world, they are all of the same stuff and inhabit the same realm as human beings. Orcs in Tolkien's Middle Earth might be monstrous and non-human, but they're still basically thinkable and knowable. In D&D, this tendency is much more pronounced - orcs are really just rather bestial and psychopathic human beings, a bit like an exaggerated version of our most violent tendencies. Elves are, likewise, just rather sophisticated and elegant people. Meanwhile, monsters like manticores, cockatrices, and chimeras are very dangerous and powerful but are essentially just rather unusual varieties of animal. 

At the same time, humans, orcs, elves, manticores and cockatrices all inhabit the same world. They're all part of the same reality. Maybe there are "monsters" and they may not be strictly part of the ecology, but they're just sort of there in the same way that mountain is there or a tree is there or a jackdaw is there.

I'm getting less and less interested in this as time goes by. In fact I'm getting more and more interested in adventure as taking place in the spaces where the human world touches others. This could be the dungeon as mythic underworld. It could be the wilderness as mythic otherworld. It could be other planes of existence. It could be the realms of the gods. It could be the abyss. But adventure must happen when there is cross-over between different realities, in one form or another. That could be in a physical space, like when PCs venture into a megadungeon which is some version of hell. Or it could be temporal, like certain circumstances in which realms collide or overlap or rub together. 

As a corollary of this I'm getting less interested in "monsters" in general, and more interested in antagonists as being spirits, demons, faeries. Not monsters, but things from other realities which are confronted because they have slipped into our own, or vice versa. Not parts of the furniture in the world of the PCs, however rare or powerful, but things that are qualitatively distinct. 

This is the approach I'm aiming for with my Ainu Moshir game. When you're in the wilderness, you're not really in the world of farms and towns and villages. You're in a place that is other. You're in a space where you are an outsider. And the stuff that is out there is not tangible or understandable in any way that you have experienced before. It is a place which you can see or touch, but which you can never hope to be a part of. It is a place which is independent and which maintains its independence just as your world does. And just as you can venture into it if you dare, things from the wilderness can venture into your world - the world of farms and towns and villages. And just as you will never be a part of the wilderness, those things will never be part of your world. But they can see or touch it, in all manner of unexpected and frightening ways. 

Monday 22 February 2016

Scenes from The Peridot

If all things go according to plan, Issue #1 of the Peridot should be released by the end of March at the latest. I thought I'd share some bits of art:

This is from "The Ichthyosaur's Pool", an adventure site. It's by the inimitable Matthew Adams.

This is a Kusarikku, from the mini-setting, "Eshnunna". It's by Nicolo Maioli.

This is "The Black Dream of the Dying". It's by Mark Hiblen.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Preparation and Craftsmanship

I saw this video today at an art exhibition - all about Leonardo da Vinci's drawing materials. In those days just getting ready to draw something was in itself quite an effort, and I enjoyed watching the process - which is almost a work of art in its own right. (You'll have to click the link below to watch it, as it can't be embedded.)

Leonardo da Vinci's Drawing Materials from Royal Collection Trust on Vimeo.

It reminded me quite a bit of preparing for a campaign or gaming session as a DM. Now, I don't want to draw some sort of absurd parallel between a gaming session and the work of da Vinci. I just mean that there is something similar in the procedure: the careful creation of mundane materials from which something much more interesting will spring. The careful time and effort devoted to simply setting up a framework for something better.

Da Vinci must have had a lot of patience, and faced a lot of pressure. Imagine how much more tense the experience of painting and drawing must have been when your materials were expensive, limited, and time-consuming to produce. You'd be loathe to waste anything and so what you created would have to be good. I often think the same must have been true in the age of typewriters: imagine how disciplined and careful Hemingway had to be when writing, simply because correcting things was so much more of a ballache than it is nowadays.

This is also a bit like gaming. It's not like a computer game that you can just switch on and play. It's something that only happens at fixed times. This also means that you want the quality of experience to be higher, and place more demands on it. Time on a Playstation is throwaway. Time playing RPGs is precious.

This combination - the requirement for careful preparation and the sense of delayed gratification - is a big part of the hobby's appeal for me.

Friday 19 February 2016

Fantasy Aztecs in the Future; Or, Scorpion-men, Tabaxi, and Yuan-ti, Oh My!

In my post about innovation in the Forgotten Realms, one of my postulated ideas was this:

Fantasy Aztecs in the future. So there's a fantasy Mexico in the Forgotten Realms, it seems - full of scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti, and the rest. It's called Maztica. Fast forward 2,000 years. Now all the scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti and the rest are putting cybernetic implants in their bodies, riding around in driver-less cars, smoking e-cigarettes, and getting tattoos. The PCs are private investigators solving murders: there is a separate police force and legal system for each of the different races, and the PCs have to work in a fashion hidden from the authorities.

I got thinking about this today. I'm not really sure where I was going with the idea of PCs being private investigators solving murders, but I like it, so let's pursue it.

Future Maztica is a legal pluralist society: there are different legal systems for different populations. Early medieval Europe was a bit like this. You had secular and ecclesiastical courts, the separate lex mercatoria followed by merchants; local customary law which varied from region to region and often from village to village; the general Germanic customary code; the revived Roman Law used in universities; royal courts and manorial courts and guild courts. A colleague of mine studies the history of law as represented in art; she once showed me photos of an old guild court in Florence which was the court used by the wool merchants' guild. It had its own rules, judges and punishments completely separate to those used in the city proper.

Colonial empires were also often a bit like this. In most of the British Empire, for instance, if you were, say, an English merchant, your commercial transactions would be covered by English contract law. If you killed a native, you would be subject to English criminal law. But the native populations were often left to their own devices and their own pre-existing legal systems. The Ottoman Empire even signed treaties, known as "capitulations", with European powers, by which citizens of those states within the empire would be subject to their own law, not that of the Ottomans.

Legal pluralism is interesting because it is fraught with issues of power. The reason the church had its own ecclesiastical courts in renaissance England was because it had the power to do so. (These courts still exist, in fact, although in a much diminished capacity.) One of the reasons why there was a competing Court of Chancery in England, separate from the courts of common law until the late 19th century, was because it originated as the king's court. The reason why there were separate legal systems in colonial empires was because those systems were imposed from without. And so on.

Future Maztica is like that. Scorpion-men, tabaxi and yuan-ti are all powerful. More powerful than humans. Why would they abide by human laws? They are in a position like the British authorities in India; the humans are like the native population of India who were left to their own devices - unless they bothered somebody British. So the only time a human in future Maztica interacts with the legal systems of the scorpion-men or yuan-ti is when he or she is accused of a crime against one, or is involved in a dispute with one.

So the PCs are in a tough position. They are trying to solve crimes. But whenever they do, they come against really unspeakably difficult and alien legal provisions with (to the human eye) completely unrealistic demands.

For example: a mother comes to the PCs. Her son was killed by a yuan-ti. She wants the matter investigated. The yuan-ti police don't want to know. Moreover, in the yuan-ti criminal justice system, the only evidence admissible in court is that obtained through confession, and then recorded psionically in the brain of an observer, who is then called as a witness. And this witness has to be a yuan-ti of a certain type. So the PCs have to: a) find out who the yuan-ti was who killed the woman's son; b) try to get that yuan-ti to confess; c) try to find another yuan-ti of the certain type which can act as a witness in court; d) get that yuan-ti to agree to psionically record the confession and then appear in court; and e) convince the yuan-ti police to take the matter seriously.

Perhaps this works better as the plot of some sort of pulp fantasy novel than a game. The simpler option is: it's basically like Cyberpunk 2020. The PCs are criminals and rogues, or some of the other Cyberpunk 2020 style careers (journalists, medics, etc.), and they have to operate in a society in which human beings are very much at the bottom of the pile. Humans live in the criminal underbelly of future Maztica, and if they are caught doing anything which even comes within a mile of harming the interests of a scorpion-man, tabaxi, or yuan-ti, they come under the power of the police of that race and its harsh and incomprehensible laws. They're not so much "victims of the new" as "victims of the powerful monsters which run the show". Yet since it's the scorpion-men, tabaxi and yuan-ti who have all the money...what's an enterprising human criminal to do?

Thursday 18 February 2016

[My Game, Let Me Show You It] Ainu Moshir Mood Pieces

I am planning a 5th edition D&D game set in a re-imagined Wa or Kozakura (the pseudo-Japanese bits of Kara-Tur, which is in turn the pseudo-Asia of the Forgotten Realms). The conceit is that this is Wa during a much earlier era period than the sengoku-jidai of samurai and ninja which most people are familiar with and which is pastiched in Kara-Tur. My game is set in is something like the late Nara/early Heian period (around 790 AD), when the Japanese state was only just coming together and the court was beginning to come under the influence of the Chinese and Koreans. In those days a saburahi was another word for a servant of the nobility; and a warrior, a bushi, was more likely to prioritise study of the bow than the sword.

In that era the centre of Japanese civilization was in the Kansai plain, with the capital moving around between modern Nara and Kyoto. Northern Honshu and Hokkaido were for the Japanese a wild, untamed wilderness, populated by a strange hairy people they knew as the Emishi, who are nowadays thought to be related to the Ainu. During the following centuries the Japanese gradually moved into this 'wilderness' and subdued it, slowly but surely fighting their way north until the process was finally completed with the annexation of Hokkaido in the late 19th century. My game is set in a very loose, weird re-imagining of the very earliest points of contact between Japanese and Emishi, in the deeply forested, cold and snowy North of the archipelago.

Here are some pictures.

A bear spirit. The Emishi worship immortal bear demi-gods who live in the forests. Big, dark, embodiments of nature who know only that they are owed respect and fealty.

An Emishi hunter. 

The great forest in winter. The frost itself is alive. It steals in during the night and lays itself on the earth while the people sleep. 

An owl spirit. Other demigods of the forest include the fox, the hare, the wolf, the marsh mussel, the frog, the marsh demon, and the moss spirit. 

An Ainu woman. Women's lips are tattoo'd, and they are the only ones permitted to tell stories. They are the druids of the setting. 

A valley of a moss spirit. Somewhere in its depths the spirit lurks. It never moves when a person is looking. 

An Emishi girl, before coming of age and initiation as a druid. 

Crow spirits are shape-shifters. They sometimes appear as men or women, wearing black. If they bring dung into the home of a man it curses the place forever. 

Crane spirits at dawn, coalescing from the mist which forms on rivers and marshes, and disappearing when the sun melts them away. 

Wednesday 17 February 2016

The Seaside Town that They Forgot to Bomb: On Psychic Distance and Victims of the New

I had occasion to spend the afternoon in Hartlepool today for reasons it's best not to go into. Christ, that place is bleak. I wouldn't say anything more derogatory about it than that (a word beginning with "s" and ending in "hithole" springs to mind) because, let's face it, there are parts of my home town that could easily be described that way, and it always gets my back up when people who don't know the place say bad things about it. Also, we arrived literally seconds after this happened, causing us to have to take a massive diversion through possibly the worst part of town (the kind of place where people have horses in their living rooms and litter all over their front lawns), so I may not have seen a representative sample of the delights the town has to offer.

(There's also an argument to be made that I have a strong and unfair bias against the place after Hartlepool survived in the football league at Tranmere's expense last season, with our former manager at the helm too - the twat. But I digress.)

It is bleak, though. The main street by the train station was just shuttered-up shop after shuttered-up shop. About the only places that were actually open and had people inside were hair salons (I always see that as a bad sign). It was bitterly cold and windswept, with gloomy grey clouds permanently overhead - the kind of Northern English town which seems to be encased in tupperware. It also feels like it's miles away from anywhere: hived off from Middlesborough and Sunderland, which are themselves isolated enough in the grand scheme of things. It's hard to think of a place that is more psychically distant from the trendy multicultural hipster boom-town that the rest of Britain currently presents itself as.

I got thinking about psychic distance and cyberpunk. One of the best pieces of literary criticism I've ever read - which is blessedly short and to-the-point - is Bruce Sterling's introduction to William Gibson's collection of short stories, Burning Chrome (which I would still argue is probably Gibson's best and most cyberpunk-ish book). I've mentioned this before, but Bruce Sterling makes the great and true argument that what makes Gibson's stories so good is that they are not about the elite, but the down-and-outs - the people who are the victims of technological change. Sterling, if I recall correctly, uses the phrase "the victims of the new". That has always resonated with me: The Victims of the New. Gibson was doing something special in shifting the focus of science fiction to them, the forgotten people who get fucked over by what we (nowadays) would recognise as globalisation and post-industrial technological advancements which render their talents and livelihoods obsolete.

What's odd about this, though, is that cyberpunk after Gibson ended up morphing itself into a genre which was very much to do with big cities. Metropolises like Tokyo, LA, London. Possibly Blade Runner is to blame for this, but it isn't at all realistic when we look back at the previous 40 years in the history of the developed world. Big cities are still vibrant, and growing more so. Young people want to move to them, tourists visit them on city-breaks, they're full of bearded tattoo-festooned glasses-wearing intensely-relaxed types with lots of disposable income and occasional jobs as app designers.

The victims of the new aren't really in big cities - except for the occasional ghetto. They're in places like Hartlepool, Grimsby, Fleetwood, Barrow-in-Furness, Margate, Blyth, and Rhyl. Middling-sized places that once relied on a certain industry which no longer supports any jobs and which have been hollowed-out and decayed as a result. Places where family units have been ripped apart, where the schools don't educate the kids, and where the council doesn't have enough money to keep the street-lights on at night. These are the kind of towns that are the proper subject of relevant cyberpunk games nowadays.

I sometimes fantasize about writing a retroclone of Cyberpunk 2020, or just a cyberpunk game in general. If I did, I think it would be vastly more interesting for the PCs to be people in places like Hartlepool who refuse to be Victims of the New - who are using technology to fight, win, and/or steal for themselves and their families and communities a life. I could call it the Anti-Heroes of the New, maybe.

(*I didn't take the photo on this entry and I don't know where it is, but it could be anywhere in a psychically distant corner of modern Britain.)

Tuesday 16 February 2016

I Prefer to Think of it as the Vanguard

People who like novels and reading are going through a bit of a crisis of confidence lately. There's a sense that books are dumbing down and the only reason anyone writes them is to get a movie out of them. It's as if a novel is just an aspiring script which, if it behaves itself and eats its greens, might end up being a film or TV series some day. Meanwhile, there's very depressing stuff like this to read in the far flung corners of the internet: in order to even get into an agent's slush pile, you need a blog with 5,000 readers and the mentality of a prostitute with extremely low standards. "The only way to gain approval is by exploiting the very thing that cheapens [you]," as a man once said. On the other hand, if you happen to be a comedienne who has name recognition and is the kind of person the BBC refers to as a "national treasure", an amiable radio DJ with a popular podcast and lots of twitter followers, who is mates with Adam Horowitz, or the relative of a famous basketball player, publishers queue up to give you a fat book contract whatever dreary tripe you're serving up.

All very bleak and doomsdayish. It's easy to agree with Frank Furedi that, while reports of the death of the novel are very much overstated (I shared the view of Nassim Taleb that it's more likely that ebooks and even the internet will die out before paper novels), the long story is going through a grim and unimpressive period, with novels failing to live up to their USP of offering a deep, creative and self-exploratory experience. In particular, the really imaginative and thoughtful stuff in the field of fantasy and SF seems to be getting rarer - apart from a few stalwarts it's a very bland and repetitive place indeed. If you are looking for your mind to be blown, to ruminate carefully over hidden themes, or to experience a greater and more profound sense of self, you would be hard pressed to find that in a fantasy novel picked at random from a bookshelf in a modern day book shop.

This is where the DIY RPG brain trust steps in. Think of The Driftwood VersesStraits of AnianLanthanum Chromate. The stuff Arnold K puts outThe Swordfish Islands. &c. But also, think of the games you are running, planning, reading about, thinking about. Think of your special snowflake campaign setting, or the one your DM has dreamed up. Isn't it more imaginative and vibrant than anything going on in 95% of the fantasy literature out there? Isn't it interesting, creative, thoughtful, and surprising?

One way to think of this is that people who play D&D are fighting a rearguard action against the Philistine hordes of late modernity - we're the last of a dying breed, keeping our fires burning as long as we can before the icy wind of the lowest common denominator snuffs them out. But I prefer to think of the whole DIY RPG thing as part of the vanguard of something, instead. There are signs that both high street book shops and public libraries are making comebacks - which would be entirely in keeping with the search for 'authenticity' that anybody with their eyes open can see spreading throughout the Western world. In 2016, the zeitgeist is very much analog, local, anti-corporate and artisanal. This can be very easily co-opted, of course, but its also suggests that there is still a place for humanism amongst all the bogus transhumanist/post-humanist-feeling superficiality of our popular culture, with its flashy aesthetics, auto-tuners, and slickly 'ironic' advertising. And that place may well be growing. I think creating materials for RPGs, whether for your friends, the market, or just for you, is part of that growth, the revival of humanism in a digital age, and indeed is one of the chief engines of it for those who are in the know. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams - in the green shoots of something rather than the dying embers.

Monday 15 February 2016

Best Books I Read in 2015

I was going to do this around the turn of the year, but forgot. So here we are - a list of five books I read last year, which I can recommend.

The Chin P'ing Mei, translated by Arthur Waley. Don't be put off by the phrase "16th century Chinese novel". It is extremely readable, both surprisingly funny and surprisingly moving, and excitingly alien. I reviewed it here.

Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornburg. An unconventional mystery novel that keeps you guessing about just about everything until basically the last word. The prose is out of this world - the kind of writing that you really just have to describe as "delightful", as awful as that sounds. Trust me, it isn't awful - read it and be delighted.

Post-War by Tony Judt. A very beautifully written and intelligent history of Europe from 1945 to around 2004. Tony Judt was one of the best and most sensitive popular historians out there, and this book covers it all: diplomacy, culture, intellectual developments, the economy, you name it. Anyone interested in why the modern world is the way it is ought to read it - just be prepared to sacrifice a considerable amount of time to do so.

The Pyjama Game by Mark Law. A history of judo combined with personal observations from a journalist who took up the sport late in life. I'm not sure how much appeal the book has outside martial arts practitioners, but I certainly enjoyed this - although Twigger's Angry White Pyjamas is funnier and more insightful (what is it about books written about martial arts and the use of the word "pyjamas"?).

American Tabloid by James Ellroy. I love Ellroy, but had never quite got round to his "Underworld USA" trilogy. This I found almost absurdly entertaining - it feels like there is barely a single page out of its mammoth word count that isn't filled with manic, gleeful violence and/or sex. Ridiculously good fun to read.

Thinking back, I'd apparently gone off SF and fantasy. I don't think I really read anything in those genres in 2015, and didn't miss them. It actually took The Neverending Story to rekindle my enthusiasm - which it well and truly has - and I've got a good few recommendations to work on for 2016.

Sunday 14 February 2016

In Which I Rave About The Neverending Story

I've just finished reading Michael Ende's The Neverending Story and was flabbergasted by how good it is. How is it that nobody has ever stopped me, grabbed me by the lapels, and demanded to know why I haven't read it since I was a kid? It is the most psychologically interesting (Freud would have been proud of it), imaginative (it puts the derivative shite pumped out under the 'Young Adult' category nowadays to shame), and moving (it had me in tears at the end) childrens' book I have read....well, ever.

[Spoilers below]

What I was impressed most with about the story is just how subtly and carefully Ende challenges the reader's assumptions about what has come before, in a way that seems totally consistent and believable even when turning on a sixpence. For instance, there is so much going on, thematically, in the second half of the book that you don't realise, until the very end, that much of what has been going on can be explained by the fact that Bastian is grieving for his lost mother and is, basically, in need of love. Ende never says as much and Bastian barely even thinks about his parents during the course of the novel, but then suddenly in the final chapters he does, and the entire story changes its complection completely. Yet Ende makes this feel totally genuine - not a curve ball in the slightest. All of Bastian's actions make sense when seen through that lens. The book has a pattern of doing this, even in the smallest incidents - my favourite being the transformation of the achari into the shlamoofs, which is set up one way and then shifts in the reader's mind again and again as the story progresses.

The next most impressive thing about it is the refreshing lack of sentimentality in it. I absolutely loved the reunion scene between Atreyu and Bastian at the end. Ende resists all urges to sentimentalise the scene with hugs, requests for forgiveness, etc. Instead the two boys just look at each other. That's enough. All is forgiven, and neither needs to say it. Totally realistic, totally believable when it comes to how human beings actually behave. All of the book is like that. Not over dramatic, no Hollywoodisms.

And the third most impressive thing about it is just how much it makes you think. It's been a long, long time since I've read a book that has been such food for thought. As a result of reading it I've ruminated over the nature of the imagination, why fiction exists, what friendship is, what it means to grow up from a boy into a man, the nature of memories, the relationship betwen creativity and lying, you name it. I've also got a lot of vignettes which are really quite profound and which I'll be thinking over for a long time: why did Xayide's creations kill her - or did she kill herself? Was Bastian right to transform the achari? Was he right to give his mule what her heart desired? What is so tempting about The Nothing? What is the nature of Gmork?

It is a stunningly good book, and that rarest of rare things: a fantasy novel which I'm sure I'll go back to again and again. Read it.

Saturday 13 February 2016

5 Thoughts on a Cursory Glance through 5th Edition Rules

I am going to be running a 5th edition campaign soon. So I thought I'd better actually familiarise myself with the rules - that could come in handy. To this end, I abused the print facilities at work today to get my hands on copies of the free "Basic" versions of the rules, as well as a few bits and pieces from the SRD. (I think WotC are to be commended for doing this, from a long-term growth perspective.)

I am an extremely lazy person, and as I get older I have less and less patience to learn new systems. Luckily 5th edition is still recognisably D&D, and probably more recognisably D&D than 4th or 3rd edition were to me. That said, there are some big differences from what I'm used to (which I call BECMI, but is really just Red Box Basic, because I use none of the optional rules from the Master's set). Here's what I've noticed so far:

1) They made it really hard to die. I mean really hard. PCs in 5th edition come as close as dammit to having plot immunity. I'm not sure if it is harder to die in this version than it was in 4th or 3rd, but listen, in the games I am used to running, if your hp falls below 0 you are finished. This negative hit points and death saves business is going to take some getting used to.

2) Monster stats are mercifully brief in comparison to 3rd or 4th edition, but still seem long to me - you have to work out the ability scores of monsters and keep track of modifiers? I'm going to have to think up a way around that if possible.

3) They've made hit points extremely abstract in that they basically refresh on an hourly basis, especially once PCs have gained a couple of levels. I have no problem with that in theory but in practice I feel it may result in odd circumstances within the fiction (DM describes combat round: "The orc stabs you in the chest, almost killing you...." One hour later, after the fight and some rest: "You're fine now.")

4) The spell lists seem like they have been blandified a bit, or is it just me? There don't seem to be as many spells as in PHBs of yore, and those that are there seem less interesting. But maybe I am spoiled by the extensive combination of spells I'm used to, which draws from the Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D, and quite a lot of other 1st and 2nd edition source books.

5) Because this post feels picky and negative, a positive thing: in the early variants of D&D which I am used to playing and running, character start off with brutish, miserable and usually short lives. They are pretty pathetic and the early stages of a campaign are tough. I prefer things that way, on balance. But there is nothing wrong with a bit of variety, and 5th edition looks like it will be a nice change in that PCs will start off competent and capable. I am looking forward to something different in that regard, as well as the more tactical, war-gamey feel that combat seems to promise.

Friday 12 February 2016

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 5 - Do not come between the growlfin and its mules

Session 5 of the Cruth Lowlands took place yesterday. I took the opportunity to mix in part of the old B1: In Search of the Unknown module, to mixed effect - more on that later.

PCs present:

  • Luke, playing Andy, a 3rd level fighter
  • Jason, playing Mixaham, a 1st level magic-user
  • Dan, playing Diogenes, a 1st level fighter; then Evangelios, a 1st level fighter; then Brother Ambrose, a 1st level cleric
This session began with the PCs back in Riverfork, about to set off in search of the tower of the Three Faced Wizard. They needed his help to freeze or purify an underground lake containing "water demons", in order to satisfy the kobold kolony of The Worm's Mouth, who were keeping the ex-river pirate henchman Hector hostage. Who swallowed a spider to catch a fly, etc.

The Three Faced Wizard apparently lived three days to the North across very rough terrain. The party decided that it would probably be more trouble than it was worth to take their wagon, so they set off on foot: the party had now been whittled down by death and absence [Patrice, playing Dragosta, couldn't make it this week] to Andy and Mixaham, with the hireling Christina and two henchmen river pirates, Diogenes and Evangelios. A new player, Dan, took over Diogenes, who he quickly christened 'Diog'.

On the second day out, they came across a wagon some distance away, with camping equipment around it. After being challenged by whoever was inside the wagon, and threatened with crossbow fire, they executed a pretty effective raid, with Diogenes sprinting forward under cover of Andy's heavy crossbow, while Mixaham unleashed a darkness spell. This resulted in the capture of two prospectors, who seemed willing to give up their gold. Andy was in the mood to just take half of their treasure, but Diogenes slit their throats for 'banditry'. [I think Dan was taking the whole river pirate business seriously.] 

The party took the mules and wagon owned by the prospectors and continued on their way. But that night the scent of the mules attracted a griffon through a random encounter roll; since this was at night, I decided that the griffon was instead a 'growlfin' - a griffon but with an owl's fore-body instead of an eagle's. This resulted in quite a fight. The growlfin went for the mules, and killed them in short shrift. The party took the opportunity to do some serious damage to the monster while it was distracted - but then it killed Christina and badly savaged Andy. Diogenes then attempted to distract the beast from his friend but was likewise dispatched by the growlfin's beak. It was looking seriously bad for the party, and things got even worse the next round, when the growlfin unceremoniously slaughtered Evangelios. (Once Diogenes had died we decided Dan could 'be' Evangelios - he was killed instantly. I'm not sure Dan even had the chance to roll the dice. Good times.) 

This left the badly wounded Andy and Mixaham. We were staring a TPK down the barrel. But the growlfin was badly injured by Andy in the next round and I let Dan roll for its morale check to build suspense: he rolled badly (or well, depending on your perspective) and the beast decided enough was enough and fled. 

Andy and Mixaham were in no position to continue. Three of their comrades, plus their mules, were lying hither and thither amidst scattered blood and entrails. They spent that night in nervous fear of the growlfin returning, but the next morning came across an apparently friendly cleric, Brother Ambrose, who was tracking the growlfin in order to smite it as a demon. (What a coincidence!) He agreed to team up with Andy and Mixaham to get revenge on the creature. 

They rested for a day, during which they spotted a gold dragon flying far off in the distance. Hardly being in the mood for another entanglement with anything, they kept out of sight. The following day they headed off following the trail of blood left by the wounded growlfin. They tracked it to its nest, in a huge hollow cypress tree; Brother Ambrose managed to creep closer...and closer....and closer....throwing it chunks of meat, until he was close enough to 'smite' it in the head. With the beast dead, Mixaham proceeded to dissect it, as is his wont, in order to try to gain alchemical materials. He was now in possession of a growlfin's internal organs, with plenty of blood and bile too.

The party continued their journey and reached the tower of the Three Faced Wizard without incident. The tower of the Three Faced Wizard lies at the foot of high mountains. It is made entirely from silver. As the party approached, they began to hear a grinding, squelching sound underneath them that grew louder and louder; they subsequently learned that this was the work of giant earthworms whose noise prevents spell-casting in the area - except by the Three Faced Wizard, who is used to it. 

At the tower they were met by the Three Faced Wizard's three apprentices - a beautiful red-head, brunette, and blonde, known as the First, Second and Third. These apprentices agreed to let Mixaham have an audience with the wizard. After passing his baboon servants and giant lizard guards, the party reached the top of the tower and the Three Faced Wizard's solar. The wizard agreed to provide Mixaham and Andy with a potion that would freeze an underground lake, but he needed a captive "ice spirit" in order to do this. The party would need to go to a nearby glacier in order to try to get one, and the wizard gave Mixaham a magic ring in order to capture such a being. In return, he wanted any magical or interesting treasure the party came across inside the glacier. He also agreed to teleport the party to the kobolds' cave afterwards, in order to meet the one week deadline for freeing Hector, which would otherwise pass before they could get to him; in return they promised to give him a considerable amount of treasure. Mixaham was also able to ask for some alchemical training in return for handing over his accumulated wealth, some thousands of gp-worth of gems. 

The party set off for the glacier. Here they found a series of caves [DM's note: this is level 2 from the B1 module] and began to explore them in search of an 'ice spirit'. They didn't do this before the session ended, but they did manage to kill two ice zombies and a carrion crawler, and flee from an ochre jelly and some crab spiders. Brother Ambrose also almost died from a poison gas trap on a chest, but survived with 1 hp remaining.

A very enjoyable session, but I wasn't particularly happy with the way B1 worked in play - it was, I think, a little bit dull. I will have to spice it up a bit for next week. Dan almost managed the considerable feat of having three separate PCs die in a single session, but Brother Ambrose proved a bit luckier than Diogenes and Evangelios had been. The perils of wilderness travel as low-level characters in D&D was strongly in evidence here. 

Thursday 11 February 2016

A Year of Living Yoon-Suinly

About this time a year ago, Yoon-Suin was released. I thought it might be fun to do a sort of summary of what's gone on.

When I was in the later editing stages for the book, I came across this post by Epidiah Ravachol, breaking down his first year of producing his Worlds Without Master magazine. This seemed to be following the trend set by Vincent Baker and others among the story gamers towards being transparent about their sales.

I found that post by Epidiah very useful and interesting, as somebody working on a game of my own, so I thought I'd share a brief overview of sales so far and some of the lessons learned.

I sell Yoon-Suin through three outlets: OBS (drive thru RPG/RPG now), Payhip, and Lulu (for POD). Sales as of 31st Jan 2016 were as follows:

Lulu (print edition): 620 units
OBS: 369 units
Payhip: 153 units

I've sold a handful more since then. Initially the big surge was through Payhip. Now I hardly get any sales from them. I would say now, a year on, in the "long tail" for Yoon-Suin, 80% of sales are from Lulu, 19% are through OBS, and 1% are through Payhip.

What have I learned?

1) Print does better than PDF. I was initially surprised by this. I was expected about 2/3 of sales to be in PDF when in fact print outperforms digital, and seems to increase its dominance over time. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense: print is generally better than PDF - more useful and readable - and people recognise that.

2) Payhip is objectively better in many dimensions than OBS. You get the money straight away (its all automatic - sell a PDF, the money is in your Paypal account within seconds), they take care of VAT, and they take a tiny sliver for themselves (5%). There should be no competition. But...

3) OBS has a dominant position in the market among people buying RPG stuff, so you'd be a fool not to use them. I have never ever used a single link to the OBS page for Yoon-Suin, but I've still sold more than twice as many units that way as I have through Payhip. People just seem to prefer to buy through OBS. I hope the situation changes, but for the time being, you're better off making your stuff available through them to attract browsers and take advantage of the trust people have in it.

4) By the same token, though, since Payhip and other options are a bit more profitable, you'd be a fool to use OBS exclusively. Take the slight hit (65% share rather than 70%) as the cost of having the option to publish elsewhere.

5) Creating it was bloody hard work but worth it.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Neverending Campaign and the Problem of Verisimilitude

What I always feel reticent about in a story game like In a Wicked Age or Blood & Honor or Fiasco or whatever is that I encounter a verisimilitude problem during the game. It's all very well to cede narrative control to different players, and it often results in interesting and enjoyable consequences, but I find it hard to engage with the world as a believable place if everything is contingent and can change at a moment's notice once control of what's happening shifts from one player to another. (Of course, you get a bit of this in any RPG, but it isn't the whole point of the game as it is in, say, Fiasco.)

For example, let's say it has been established that there is a town with a mayor. Okay. Then one of the players decides that the mayor is secretly an alien. Then once that's been established, one of the other players decides that the mayor is a secretly an alien and his wife is an alien hunter who does not know that her husband is an alien. That's the sort of dramatic consequence that you get in certain story games, and I like it, but it only really makes sense as the creation of a narrative, not an exploration of an actual real world. This makes it hard for me to take things seriously, as though they are not actually really happening but are just contingent, notional events subject to radical change at a moment's notice.

What's a way around that problem? Well, I am currently reading The Neverending Story. I read it once a very long time ago, I reckon when I was about 10 or 11, so I can remember very little about it (except the really vivid scene in which a band of flagellants throw themselves into the Nothing, which has always stuck in my mind). I'd always thought of it as being a kind of European version of The Lord of the Rings, but of course it isn't that at all. It's more of a kind of trippy extended metaphor for the imagination, and it's pretty brilliant stuff. (And nothing like the film, although I don't remember much about that either.)

As those of you familiar with the story will know, in the second half of the book Fantastica sort of creates itself out of the wishes of Bastian - it isn't fixed in place at all. Once Bastian has imagined something, it comes into effect and is completely real, but not until then. This gives him a level of control over things, although the world has a strange way of not quite conforming to what he really wants it to be and in a sense perverting it.

I like this - it's a very potent allegory for the human imagination - and I think it's a little bit like the way in which a story game works. You have a world that is slowly created by the players, each of whom has the power to give effect to his or her wishes. But those wishes get perverted and changed by the other players, or the GM, who also act on the world in unexpected ways. Like Bastian, each player has the power to actually affect the world purely through his or her imagination, but, also like Bastian, the world still has the capacity to be completely surprising.

I like this way of thinking about story games and it makes much more sense to me not to think of them as story games, but Neverending Story Games (if you will). In other words, people who make story games have inadvertently made the perfect tool for replicating the fictional world of The Neverending Story and settings like it. Forget all that hippy bollocks about shared narrative and protagonisation and whatnot. No, let's use story games for role playing in worlds in which the PCs, not the players, actually literally have the capacity to affect things with their wishes. Boris the 1st level fighter can actually create a dragon's treasure hoard by wishing it into existence, and Sarah the 2nd level mage can actually wish for the dragon to be absent. It's not Boris and Sarah's players who are doing it, but the actual characters within the fiction. Of course, the GM then gets the chance to say, yes, there may be a dragon's hoard, and the dragon may be absent, but he always leaves his treasure hoard coated with deadly poison when he goes away. (Even better: the PCs make wishes about the world. The GM makes tweaks in response but does not say them out loud - he just writes them on a concealed piece of card that he reveals at an appropriate moment: "Haha, the dragon's hoard is poisoned, fuckers!")

This seems the perfect approach for a campaign - or maybe an interlude in a campaign - which is set in a dream land or a place in which dream logic operates. The players get sucked into Limbo or Pandemonium or the Abyss. There, whatever they imagine gets made real... But the evil nature of the environment cannot easily be escaped...

Monday 8 February 2016

On Quality, Whisky, Time, and Being a Connoisseur

Have a look at these videos:

This is somebody who cares deeply about whisky and wants it, more than anything else, to be good. Somebody who appreciates quality and does not care about being labelled as snobbish or elitist as a result - because life is glorious and important and must be made the most of. I like this. I like listening to somebody talk in a passionate and informed way about a topic. I happen to like whisky, but I think I would enjoy listening to these videos even if it was about a topic I knew nothing about - like, I dunno, dressage.

One of the big victories of the move towards DIY D&D is that it allows people to be connoisseurs of games. I don't mean that in a poncey or precious way. I simply mean that there is so much stuff being produced, written, and tried, and so much experience to draw from, that it is possible to discuss and think about games carefully and in detail in a way that was never possible before. To put it in a slightly poncey or precious way - it is now possible to savour them.

There is nothing wrong with savouring things. As Ralfy says at some point, there's a lot of pressure in life not to think. There are too many distractions and stresses and other things to do. But stopping to think about what you are doing, have done, and would like to do, is of crucial importance in really properly enjoying life. If you don't stop to think things over, you're living life like a fly - darting from one thing to another, pursuing sensations and experiences for the sake of them, and probably being almost as satisfied scoffing dog turd as a fine pate as a result. That's no good at all, and certainly not what we humans are here for. So here's to having a good wee dram of whisky, rum, armagnac or whatever's your poison, and thinking carefully and slowly about gaming materials that have been, gaming materials that you are creating, and games that have been played or are yet to be.

Friday 5 February 2016

The Imagination is a Muscle

In a recent episode of Geek's Guide (which I thought was largely nonsense, but entertaining enough), the interviewee observed that the imagination is something that has to be exercised - imagining things is something you can get better at.

I agree with this. It got me thinking: if you have to exercise your imagination - if it's a muscle as much as your triceps or glutes - then why not do more formal imagination training? Here are my patented daily routines for becoming a better imaginer.

Imagination Maintenance

This is for use during busy periods, illness, or for beginner imaginers to get into the habit. Roll up as many D&D PCs as you can in five minutes (using 3d6 for stats, in order). Just do the dice rolls. Then spend 10 minutes coming up with a name, personality, class, and distinguishing feature for each one. Do six sets, with five minutes rest in between. Increase the number of sets as your speed and fitness improve. Allow yourself one day of rest a week.

Imagination Circuit Training

The key to proper circuit training is rotating through between 4 and 8 different exercises without resting in between. A standard routine might run as follows, with each 10 minutes for each set, repeated three times.

  1. Imagine a new monster. Give it stats.
  2. Imagine a new NPC wizard. Equip him with treasure and two assistants.
  3. Draw the top level of a dungeon.
  4. Pick four monsters at random from a bestiary of your choice and give them each a replacement ability for an existing one. 
  5. Invent a new magic item.
  6. Invent a new spell.

A more advanced routine could be as follows, allowing 15 minutes for each set and three repetitions, advancing to five as fitness increases.

  1. Pick four monsters at random from a bestiary of your choice. Invent a society comprising those four monsters.
  2. Create a mini-hex map of six hexes.
  3. Create a random encounter table for a type of terrain.
  4. Create a d30 table for a means of randomly determining something of your choice.
  5. Think of a new PC race or class.

High Intensity Interval Imagination Training (HIIIT)

Alternate 40 seconds of high intensity imagining with 15-20 seconds of low intensity imagining and continue for as long as desired (not longer than 30 minutes and not less than 4 minutes). High intensity imagining consists of thinking of something entirely new (e.g. a new monster, map, NPC, etc.) Low intensity imagining involves tweaking something which already exists (e.g. altering a spell, class or monster). This is not advised for amateur imaginers or beginners, as it might lead to brain strain or more serious injuries. 

Thursday 4 February 2016

Clerics as Summoners of Angels

One of the main characteristics of There is Therefore a Strange Land is that it is set in a sort of pseudo-real world. If you are a cleric, you worship God. (Rules for Satan worshippers can wait for another day.) This means that you can't use magic, which would be blasphemous. That's something you need an angel for.

The angel will demand one of the following actions is performed in return for  a period of service of 3d6 days. During the period of service the angel obeys any command, except to kill itself.

Perform an unasked-for act of compassion during the course of the period of service
Give away at least 10% of personal wealth during the course of the period of service
Take a vow of silence for the duration of the period of service
Abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours for the duration of the period of service (-2 to all rolls during daylight)
Smite an evildoer for no personal gain during the course of the period of service
Ask for forgiveness from somebody previously wronged at the end of the period of service (determined by the DM)

In addition, during the course of the period of service, the cleric may not disobey any of the Ten Commandments or order the angel to. If he or she does so, the angel will rebel and must be persuaded its continued service is for the Greater Good. The cleric's PC must come up with a plausible reason, and then roll on the following table, adding the reaction adjustment for the cleric.

Angel rebels and attacks
Angel returns to heaven
Angel is indecisive (roll again in one round)
Angel remains in service but makes another demand
Angel remains in service

A summoned angel has the following abilities, based on the level of the cleric.

1st level
1 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +1, 1st level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
2nd level
2 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
3rd level
3 HD, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d3 per day, randomly determined)
4th level
4 HD, AC 5, ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6 per day, randomly determined)
5th level
5 HD, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
6th level
6 HD, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (1d6+3 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
7th level
7 HD, AC 3, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +3, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day)
8th level
8 HD, AC 3, #ATT 2, DMG By Weapon +4, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 4th level cleric spell list (1d3 per day)
9th level+
9 HD, AC 2, #ATT 3, DMG By Weapon +2, 1st level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 2nd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 3rd level cleric spell list (2d6 per day), 4th level cleric spell list (1d6 per day)
*Angels can also levitate, see invisible, and polymorph self to pass for a normal human, all once per day at 1st level, three times per day at 4th level, and at will at 9th level+.

Angels have the following characteristics.

Appearance 1
Appearance 2
Young boy
Shimmering and radiant
Young girl
Almost preternaturally nondescript
Adolescent boy
Very thin and delicate
Adolescent girl
Very small
Adult male
Very tall
Adult female
Blue skinned
Short bow
Old man
Green skinned
Old woman
Very ugly
Eagle headed
Fat and well-fed
Lion headed
Battle axe
Dog headed
Two-handed sword
Very long-haired

[Main thoughts: could be overpowered. Also, the characteristics table needs to be a d20 or d30 one.]