Tuesday 31 May 2016

Five Varieties of Feathered Men

The Infinite City on the Water is full of feathered bird-men of many different varieties; in the crocodile's mind clothes became feathers and the shouts of sailors the cries of birds. It arranged these odd avian things into different types and in its memory their roles have crystallised into things radically different from what they actually did. All of them have a bird-like intelligence and most have a tendency to flock; except for certain solitary types elements of their behaviour is social, and they can be browbeaten or persuaded into service.

Bald Spinners

The lowliest sailors - fishermen and divers - were largely naked, and the crocodile mainly saw them manipulating ropes and nets and climbing rigging. They appear in its memory as birds almost entirely plucked raw - all bumpy pale brown flesh - but with great agility and sinewy strength in their humanoid hands and clawed feet. They are able to produce a spidersilk-like substance from their wrists, thick and brown and strong, which they use to ensnare their prey.

HD 1, AC 12, AB +2
*Can attack with claws and beak for d3 and d2 damage
*Can climb any non-smooth surface at full movement speed
*Can spend 1 round producing 30' of sticky rope which, if thrown at a target, acts as an ensnare spell; it can spend 2 rounds to produce a web or net which can be used as a web spell

Flamboyant Starlings

Merchants and traders, with their extravagant coloured clothing and dramatic gestures, have become in the crocodile's memory a race of very splendid passerine birds with shimmering florid coats and cacophonous songs. They hop and flutter about in flocks, chattering and singing in deafening volume.

HD 2, AC 14, AB +3
*Can attack with claws, beak and wing buffet for d3, d2 and d2 damage
*Can fly
*Emit a constant song which dampens all sound within a 60' radius and prevents all spellcasting within a 30' radius; once a day the starling can elevate its song, causing d6 hit points of damage to any non-starling in a 60' radius and deafening them permanently on a failed save vs. magic (this is alleviated by a cure serious wounds spell).
*Starlings never surprise opponents and are always surprised themselves

Iridescent Magpies

Armoured men - the warriors of the ancient city - puzzled the crocodile. They appeared to be another strange variety of this vast nest of birds, yet their appearance, gleaming and heavyset, was at odds with those around them, and the other birds appeared to give them a wide birth, indicating danger. It envisions them nowadays, when it thinks of them at all, as corvid-types with bright metallic feathers (of silver, gold, copper or even deep blue) that glisten and glimmer and sparkle in the sunlight.

HD 3, AC 16, AB +4
*Can attack with claws, beak and wing buffet for d6, d4 and d3 damage
*Can fly
*Sunlight bounces off their feathers in a dazzling light, causing opponents to be at -2 to hit; an iridescent magpie can sacrifice making attacks for one turn to flutter its wings and tail so that sunlight bounces into the eyes of an opponent, blinding him or her for d3 rounds.

Dun Sparrows

Many of the people the crocodile saw on boats floating on the sea's surface, or thronging the distant quays, were dressed in drab brown or grey clothing and carried on their business inconspicuously. They are in its memory something like a sparrow or dunnock: furtive, fast, and flighty.

HD 1, AC 14, AB +2
*Can attack with claws and beak for d3 and d2 damage
*Can fly
*Will only attack if present in double the number of opponents, and will immediately flee if reduced to less than double

Rhythmic Drummer

The slave oarsmen flitting between the great trading ships in the harbour of the ancient city were forced to keep time to a constant drum beat. The foremen were to the crocodile naked of feathers, like the other slaves, but with an inflatable throat-chest sack which they puffed full of air like a frigate bird in order to emit their deep pulsating rhythm. They appear in its memory like a plucked bird with a huge sagging sack of skin hanging from its throat, which it puffs up full of air and then throbs to strange effect on those around it.

HD 1, AC 12, AB +2
*Can attack with beak for d3 damage
*Spends a round inflating its throat sack, and then uses it to emit a magical pulsating rhythm. This can have one of the following effects:
-Boosting the activities of allies, giving them +2 to hit and damage rolls and a +2 bonus to initiative
-Causing enemies to drop their weapons and dance as though compelled, on a failed save vs. magic; the dance ends if the Rhythmic Drummer is forced to stop by being hit and taking damage in combat
-Dispelling magic within 30'

Monday 30 May 2016

The Seven Who Went Before

The PCs are not the first adventurers to travel into the memory-world of the crocodile of the Guarded Lake. At least seven others went before. What they did there is unknown, because they never returned. But the shamaness of Sepik knows that they are still alive, somehow: lost in a labyrinth of the half-forgotten and misremembered, but perhaps - perhaps - strong-willed and fierce enough to have forged something for themselves there, and hence to have chosen to remain. Creators of realms of their own within and from the memory-stuff of the crocodile's mind.

The Seven Who Went Before are:

Sese-Mahuru-Bau. The most recent to enter the mind of the crocodile, Sese-Mahuru-Bau is a native of Paradijs, a young man who had by his seventeenth birthday already killed five men in battle and wrestled three of the smaller puk-puk crocodiles on the river. He came from a nearby village and pleaded with the shamaness to be allowed to enter the memories of the crocodile of the Guarded Lake, so he might bring out a dowry to present to the father of his beloved.

Xu Fu, the Sorcerer. A Chinese magician from the court of the Emperor in far Peking, who vowed to find the elixir of everlasting life and traveled the oceans in a vast junk crewed by 3000 eunuch slaves. Four hundred years ago he arrived in Paradijs on a raft, alone except for a young girl from some far off land in the icy North. He made his way up the Sunset River to the village of Sepik and asked the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother of the shamaness to seek his elixir in the memories of the crocodile of the Guarded Lake.

Pape Jan or El Preste Xuan or Prester John. A black-skinned king from the "Third India" of Ethiopië, who traveled beyond the sea in the antique past to spread the word of God among the heathen peoples of the Orient. Long thought to have forged a kingdom there, in fact he eventually made his way to Guarded Lake, and, with the help of the shamaness's distant ancestor, ventured from this world to the crocodile's memory so as to raise a great host there and bring it back for his holy wars.

Jorge de Menezez. A Portingale adventurer and explorer, one of the first from Europe to sail to Paradijs. A bloodthirsty killer who was given to fits of violence, though possessed of a cold charisma, he was struck by the savage beauty of this new land and abandoned his crew to strike out into the interior. Coming to the Guarded Lake after many weeks of jungle living, he was close to starvation and half-mad. The villagers of Sepik nursed him back to health and, hearing from them the story of the great crocodile, he demanded the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of the shamaness allow him to enter its memory world, because he had never yet let himself be refused entry to any land or harbour.

Anak Wungsu. A Hindoo noble from the island of Bali who, it was said, could sell skin to a tiger or ivory to a rhino. Having amassed great wealth and traded across oceans, from Orissa in the West to the Indianized thalassocracies of Cebu and Palawan in the East, he hungered for yet more exotic treasures. This led him to the place now called Paradijs, and legends of the vast crocodile who dwelt in the Guarded Lake came to obsess him. He begged the shamaness's ancestor to be allowed through the doorway of its memory, so that he might purchase there items that he might bring back for his Rajah.

Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani. A philosopher from far off Persia, across the wide oceans, who ruminated on the nature of things for decades until struck by what he felt were certain ineluctable Truths. These truths compelled him to travel the world spreading his newfound faith; he arrived in Paradijs an old man, withered and hardened like a tough old tree, yet utterly unwilling to allow the spreading of his Truths to be hindered by as trivial a thing as the distinction between reality and memory. His vision was so strong that the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother of the shamaness allowed him to proceed.

Friday 27 May 2016

The Infinite City on the Water

The Infinite City on the Water is one of the levels of the crocodile's mind in Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. In the crocodile's youth, before it moved upriver and ensconsed itself in the lake in which it now dwells, it traveled the oceans - and saw a city on the coast, a kind of ancient Venice, which is now not even the dust of a ruin. That place still looms large in its imagination: a nest of bipedal creatures which in its mind are now something like birds - their colourful clothes, which the crocodile did not understand, it interpreted as akin to feathers; the shouts and calls of the sailors blended in its mind with the cries of the gulls; their fishermen reminded it of seabirds stealing fish from beneath the waves.

The buildings were a mystery to it and what it comprehends of architecture, it thinks of as a sort of endless jumble of hive-like mounds endlessly repeating, a fractal structure that a human would recognise as a never-ending repetition of canals, domes, quaysides, towers, apartments...a city with no end, but a city with no rhyme or reason. A chaotic mess crawling with half-birds burrowing in and out of its labyrinthine and meaningless doorways, windows, hallways and alleys. A bewildering pseudo-settlement, an Escherian nightmare, which looks as thought it has all the things a city has and has none of them... yet also oddly and almost hideously beautiful, because if a crocodile is capable of feeling awe, it felt it studying that ancient city from afar.

[Art by Ken Brown, Unknown, Gurmukh Bhasin, Unknown, Gurmukh Bhasin again, James Gurney]

Thursday 26 May 2016

Distant Memories of Dimly Perceived Homo Erectus on a Riverbank

The crocodile saw the infancy of human life out of the corner of its eye, paying as much attention as a man does to the hopes, concerns, lives and deaths of deer: occasional subjects of disinterested study; occasional meals.

It remembers them chiefly as bipedal, hairless creatures - something like a beast of the land, but also smooth and sleek like a fish or snake. Forever making strange chattering noises, like a bird; the crocodile does not understand the concept of speech, and if it thought about the behaviour of early humans at all, it surmised that they were somehow able to understand each other through pheromones. It thinks of them as cowards, who were extremely skittish around water and terrified of confrontation unless they were armed and in large numbers, though sometimes, at night, it perceived the warm glow of the fires they were somehow able to create, apparently from the dust itself. It saw their villages too: nests, it thought, like those of some social insect like a bee or wasp. It has no understanding of their hierarchies or sexes: it never paid enough attention, nor is perhaps capable of comprehending such a thing as a "family" or a "chief".

Distant Memories of Homo Erectus

Appears as a bipedal humanoid, with shaggy hair around the head, furtive dark eyes, and skin that is brown but scaled - squamous like a serpent. Alone or in small numbers they are cowards who avoid confrontation; in numbers of four or more they attack if having the advantage of surprise; in numbers of eight or more they attack remorselessly. They communicate through smell or perhaps some minor psionic ability, and make a constant confused and babbling chatter which distracts magic-users from completing spells on a roll of '1'. With a handful of dust they can produce fire, which they can then throw at a distance of 6', causing d3 damage.

No Appearing: 2d6 (3d20 in lair), HD 1+1, AC 14, AB+2

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Port Keizerin Elisabeth - Hireling Table

Port Keizerin Elisabeth sits like washed up detritus at the mouth of the Sunset River: a jumbled collection of huts linked together by mud paths, with ramshackle jetties poked tentatively into the water as if in trepidation of being swept away. Its namesake, the Empress, has never seen it and never will; its founder, the Ulsterman explorer Robert Carson, named it in the hope of gaining a title. He never did. This is the main port of the Paradijs Kolonie. The entrance to the jungle.

There is no quayside at the Port. The town was founded only 20 years ago and ships still have to moor in the large bay outside. The waters in between are crisscrossed by a miniature flotilla of small boats and skiffs, mostly crewed by native oarsmen with suspicious eyes and tribal scars cut into their cheeks like tears. On land, men looking white and pale and out of place gather together hoping for offers of labour in lumber mills or spice plantations. In the meantime they drink, gamble, and sometimes fight; the bodies, if there are any, are tossed out to sea for the gulls, fish, turtles and crocodiles. 

Now and then, however, men (and occasionally women) of a different type gather at Port Keizerin Elisabeth: armed, armoured, here to sell their strength and toughness and aptitude for violence. They come from all over the territories of the Company and far beyond, in search of wealth, adventure, or sometimes the simple thrill of murder. This is the chief source of hired assistance for a group of PCs heading upriver.

There will be d6+3 potential candidates in Port Keizerin Elisabeth each month. They are 1st level fighters and will join the party for half a share of treasure gained. 

No armour (AC 12), staff (d4+1)
Has a large and hideous goitre (-2 to reaction rolls for the party)
No armour (AC 12), spear (d6+1)
Walks with a limp (2/3 speed)
Leather armour (AC 14), spear (d6+1)
Exceptionally strong (+1 damage)
Leather armour (AC 14), rapier (d8+1)
Stinks (enemies surprised only on a roll of 1)
Leather armour (AC 14), polearm (d8+1)
Can only say “yes”
Leather armour (AC 14), cutlass (d8+1)
Is accompanied by a war dog
Leather armour (AC 14), short bow (d6)
Is accompanied by a trained parrot
Leather armour (AC 14), knife (d4+1)
Prone to aggression (attacks encountered monsters on a roll of 1 irrespective of orders)
Leather armour (AC 14), axe (d8+1)
Coward (flees if loses half remaining hp in a round of combat)
Leather armour (AC 14), mancatcher
Has a “past” (is being pursued by a magical assassin)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), spear (d6+1)
Psychopath (will stop to dismember corpses of slain enemies)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), whip (d3+1)
Religious (only attempts to subdue rather than kill)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), cutlass (d8+1)
Religious (must stop to pray for d6 rounds, five times a day)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), axe (d8+1)
Religious (must spend d6 rounds ritually cleansing hands after battle)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), sabre (d8+1)
Stubborn (10% magic resistance)
Leather armour + shield (AC 15/16), sabre (d8+1)
Handsome/beautiful (gives +2 bonus to reaction rolls for the party)
Chain armour (AC 16), polearm (d8+1)
Sharp hearing (only surprised on a roll of 1)
Chain armour (AC 16), short bow (d6)
Sneak (always attempts to attack from behind in combat)
Chain armour (AC 16), zweihander (d10+1)
Berzerk (always charges into battle as soon as able)
Chain armour (AC 16), cutlass (d8+1)
Has a “good nose” (has a 1 in 6 chance of tracking or gives +1 if helping another party member track)
Paradise native
Chain armour (AC 16), arquebus (d10)
Good carpenter (doubles repair rate for boats)
Paradise native
Chain armour + shield (AC 17/18), sabre (d8+1)
Stupid (will wander off on a roll of 1-2 if assigned an unsupervised task)
Paradise native
Chain armour + shield (AC 17/18), spear (d6+1)
Missing tongue (cannot speak)
Chain armour + shield (AC 17/18), axe (d8+1)
Educated (is from a wealthy family and understands 1 – botany; 2 – chemistry; 3 – arcana; 4 – astronomy)
Chain armour + shield (AC 17/18), whip (d3+1)
Risk taker (always volunteers for dangerous tasks)
Plate armour (AC 18), arquebus (d10)
Fake (is untrained; -2 to attack rolls)
Plate armour (AC 18), polearm (d8+1)
Has a telescope
Plate armour (AC 18), zweihander (d10+1)
Has “the bard’s tongue” (occasionally chimes in with useful advice)
Plate armour + shield (AC 19/20), sabre (d8+1)
Is on the run from the authorities
Plate armour + shield (AC 19/20), axe (d8+1)
Roll twice

[I am dialing the pseudo-17th century real world flavour of LotFP to 11 for the basic set-up for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. This includes lots of pidgin Dutch and German-sounding words.]

Monday 23 May 2016

[Actual Play] 5th edition in Pre-Medieval Japan: Sessions 6 & 7 - Death of a Hero

The last two Sundays the regular 'Three Mysterious Weirdos' campaign continued. The cast of characters is:

  • Goro, a 2nd level Japanese warlock (or onmyoji)
  • Terasu, a 2nd level Japanese cleric (or kannushi)
  • Monomi, a 2nd level Chinese monk
  • Pasekur, a 1st level Emishi ranger/his sister Toitoi, a 1st level Emishi druid

The PCs had established that Lord Mishiri's concubine (who was a demon in disguise) was trying to harm his wife and daughter, and that the daughter had been having strange dreams - of skull-headed seals and an old man's face covered with moss. They had decided that Goro would attempt to meet the concubine alone to discuss the matter with her (Goro having already established a kind of rapport with the young woman); it was also decided that, as this meeting would take place, Monomi would lurk stealthily in the background in order to provide support if things went wrong. 

Goro met the concubine on a walk in the evening around the village of Okoppe (where the retinue of Lord Mishiri had remained), with Monomi following - the concubine gave no indication whether she knew he was there. It quickly became apparent that the concubine saw no reason to keep her 'task' secret - she was 'bound' by somebody (whose identity she could not reveal) to ensure that Lord Mishiri had no heirs. She had decided to try to achieve this by eliminating his wife and daughter - the wife with some form of sickness, and the daughter by manipulating the girl's dreams so that she would wander off into the forest alone and be killed. Sensing that Goro was a man in search of supernatural power, she made him an offer: if he could arrange for Lord Mishiri's daughter to die, she would grant him a boon. She also, at this point, revealed that she knew Monomi had been following, and left Goro to discuss the matter with his "friend".

The PCs gathered together and discussed what to do next. They narrowed things down to a number of options. First, they needed to find out who had 'bound' the concubine to her task. Second, they had to think of a way to get her to reveal herself. And third, they thought it would be a good idea to try to get to the bottom of the daughter's dream visions.

Terasu was assigned the job of talking to Lord Mishiri's household wizard Takeyama, who he found to be approachable and easygoing. The wizard told him about his personal pet theory, which was that the "lichen men" who the Emishi of these lands spoke of were the remnants of a people who had one lived throughout all of the archipelago and who had retreated into the mountains long ago. He suggested that they might be there still - living in caves below the surface of the earth. Terasu asked him whether Lord Mishiri had any other heirs, or rivals - trying to steer the conversation to discover if there was anybody who might stand to inherit the Uesugi clan's leadership if Mishiri died heirless. It seemed that Lord Mishiri was an only child, and the person who was next in line was a cousin, of the Date clan, a cadet branch.

Concluding they were none the wiser from this, the PCs struck North to a place where Pasekur knew there was a landscape of mossy ravines where once had flowed a river. They thought this might tell them something about this moss man vision. On several occasions while travelling they realised they were being followed by five cranes, who would fly overhead; on each occasion the PCs would hide under the trees out of sight and wait for the creatures to pass by.

Eventually they reached a steep ravine, some 12-18 feet high, covered in moss on both sides, and followed it West. As night began to fall they came across a place where the ravine branched off, and this lead them to a skeletal corpse, with a bow and arrows next to it, clutching a small bear idol made from stag horn. The corpse was sat with its back to the wall of the ravine, with its legs curled up to its chest. They surmised it had been dead for some months. 

They now realised they had to choose whether to push on through the night or head out of the ravine. They decided to continue, carrying lights with them. This lead them a mile or two further West, until they came to another place where the ravine branched. Here they decided to spend the night. Monomi's watch passed without incident, but during Pasekur's shift he heard a voice behind him whispering questions - demanding to know who he was, and why he had brought "foreigners" here. Pasekur explained that they were investigating the strange dreams afflicting a young girl, which they thought were caused by a Southron demon. The voice confirmed this, saying that some power had come from the South and brought a dangerous magic with it; the voice said that this power could manipulate thoughts and dreams, and would bring ruin to the North if it was not stopped. The voice said that a short distance away was a place where people had made offerings to it in the past, and that Pasekur and his comrades were welcome to make use of those offerings if they would help defeat this intruder. It also told Pasekur that the skeleton belonged to a hunter who had come to these ravines, become terrified, and starved.

Pasekur immediately woke everybody else up and managed to communicate that they should follow him. He then led them to a place a short distance further West where there was a small totem with a few trinkets placed around it - stone idols (of a bear, wolf, owl and stag), an obsidian necklace, and twelve arrowheads. The PCs took these and waited for dawn, to then set off back to Okoppe to find the translator, Toitoi; Pasekur was unable to explain his conversation with the "moss voice", because he could not speak Japanese. On the way, Monomi picked up the skeleton that the party had discovered and carried it with him in order to return it to the family of whoever had owned it.

But on the way back, disaster struck. In mid-morning the five cranes which had been following the PCs descended from the sky. On touching ground they transformed into wild-looking, naked men, with gingery red hair, and skin covered with either red or yellow blotches. These men yelled something in a foreign tongue, and then attacked, picking up rocks from the river and wielding them as crude weapons. A tough fight ensued; it seemed that the men with red skin blotches were difficult to wound, and that the yellow ones were immensely strong. They could also use some rudimentary magic that allowed them to blast their enemies with invisible force. The party ultimately prevailed, but at a terrible cost: Monomi was brought to the very brink of death [DM's note: he failed and then succeeded at two death saves, meaning that for his final death save roll there was literally a 50/50 chance of stabilising or dying], and Pasekur was killed, his skull cracked open. Three of these "crane men" were killed, but the other two transformed back into cranes and fled.


The next session found our PCs in a predicament - nursing wounds but also with their key ally, Pasekur, dead. They decided that they would carry the corpses of Pasekur and one of the dead crane-men back with them, along with the skeleton they had found. While building a litter to do this they almost came to blows with a herd of wild boar foraging in the trees, but Terasu managed to scare the boar away by using his thaumaturgy to create the sound of a bear.

Eventually they made their way back to Kawa-no-kuchi and informed Lord Mishiri that his favourite, Pasekur, was dead. They also inspected the dead "crane man" with the household wizard, Takeyama-no-mahotsukai. Takeyama surmised that the red blotches on the man's skin might be lichen, and this could be one of the famous "lichen men" they had all heard about. It was at this point that it dawned on Monomi, Terasu and Goro that they had, not long ago, raided a lichen-man tomb to steal the last breath of a lichen-man sorcerer (in order to provide Umoshmatek with the material to create a spell to bind the river mussel goddess). These crane spirit/lichen men may very well be guardians or something similar. 

[DM's note: At this point it also dawned on the players themselves that since the moss voice had only spoken to Pasekur, and Pasekur had not been able to convey to the others the what the moss voice had told him; neither Monomi, Goro nor Terasu actually knew, then, what had happened the previous night, and now with Pasekur dead there was no way they would ever know. They decided they would have to see if Umoshmatek had some way to communicate with the dead and, after resting for the night, headed to Okoppe the next day, bearing Pasekur's corpse with them.]

On the way to Okoppe the PCs ran into Toitoi, who had been sent by Umoshmatek North after having foreboding dreams about her son. After emotional scenes Toitoi decided to accompany the PCs in his stead. 

Back in Okoppe, after the funeral and delivering the awful news to Pasekur's parents, Menkakush and Umoshmatek, the PCs asked whether Umoshmatek had some way to communicate with her son to retrieve the message of the moss spirit. Sure enough, it turned out there was a way of doing this, which involved a sweat-lodge ritual and hallucinogenic fungus and so forth. This allowed the PCs to each enter the realms of the dead to search for Pasekur's ghost. While there, each of them had a vision from their past of a person they had been close to who once died. [DM's note: I let them each make up this encounter.] Monomi came across the spirit of an old friend who he had watched fall to his death as they fled from some guards in a long-ago heist. This friend cursed him - though in such a way that he will not know how the curse takes effect until the moment it does. Goro came across the spirits of the inhabitants of the village where he grew up, all of whom had died in an earthquake. He vowed to take vengeance against the god who cause this disaster. And Terasu came across his father, who revealed that the sickness he had died from was caused by a rival. Then we came to Toitoi, who found Pasekur. Pasekur revealed the message of the moss voice, and on waking, Toitoi conveyed it to the others.

Toitoi was also able to examine the trinkets the PCs had found in the moss ravines; the necklace would protect against poisons, the arrowheads could be used against intruders from the realm of the dead, and the small idols of the bear, wolf, owl and stag could be thrown to the ground to summon a beast for aid (but could only be used once). 

A lengthy discussion now took place as the PCs tried to decide what to do next. Try to force the concubine to reveal herself somehow, by attacking her physically in public? Offer to help her and fake the death of Lord Mishiri's daughter? Confide in somebody else at Lord Mishiri's court? Finally, they decided that Monomi would try to gain her confidence and offer to carry out a task to prove his worth. After having gained her trust, he and the others would find some way to subvert her plans.

The next night, Monomi crept to her quarters and offered his aid. She assigned him a task: to travel to a distant glade in the forest where there grew a poisonous tree. He was then to return with sap from the tree and find some way to ensure that the daughter drank it. Monomi agreed to this, and then met up with the others; they decided they would go to the tree and then find some way to either replace the poison, ensure that the daughter didn't drink it, or some other cunning scheme... 

Saturday 21 May 2016

All stoute and well armed and always chosen by the governor by reason of their valor for to go on perilous and dangerous exploits

I am fascinated by real world adventurers. Whether it is Bandeirantes in the AmazonCossacks exploring Siberiafur traders in the American WestIcelanders sailing ever Westward, or ancient Chinese noblemen sailing to iron age Japan, I find the theme of men compelled by desperation or desire (probably both - presumably always both, for one reason or another?) to strike out into the unknown, or the dangerous and known, the most interesting phenomenon of human history.

What is probably the most interesting thing about it is that it is so morally complex: it is simultaneously typically both romantic and horrifying, necessary and wasteful, noble and criminal. How admirable it was of Pizarro or Cortes to do what they did - the astonishing combination of courage and leadership - and how utterly criminal and awful. They are the biggest-scale examples of the contradiction. But on the small-scale, too: the Icelanders weren't responsible for cultural vandalism or acts of genocide when they discovered Newfoundland, but they certainly made no bones about killing the 'Skraelings' they found there, and those Skraelings had homes and families; yet at the same time these Icelanders can be cast as paragons of universally recognised virtues - escapees from grinding poverty refusing to accept their lot; expanders of horizons; rebels against overweening authority; defenders of family. Individual Amazonian explorers were on the one-hand brutal disease-vectors and the forefront of what would ultimately be exploitation and destruction of natural resources on a vast scale; but on the other hand they were startlingly brave and resourceful, larger than life characters who you cannot (or at least I cannot) help but envy - who wouldn't want to explore the Amazon given the chance? Think of the original climbers of Mt Everest; little did they know that in a matter of decades their actions would inadvertently result in a sacred mountain being transformed into a rubbish tip/sewer, yet at the same time nobody sane could possibly suggest the original conquest of the mountain isn't a thrilling and inspirational tale.

I have recently been reading about Japanese mercenaries in the Dutch East India Company under the leadership of Jan Coen. Coen was apparently a great advocate of the use of Japanese mercenaries to solve manpower problems in the Company's burgeoning Asian empire. He ultimately shipped about 300 of them out to serve in various far-flung locations, and typically put them to use in the most dangerous and difficult situations - because they were such good fighters, so aggressive, and apparently willing to risk their lives where Europeans might not. What this ultimately seems to have meant is that these Japanese mercenaries were for a time at the forefront of Dutch imperialism in Indonesia, with perhaps the most notorious event being the massacre of the population of the Banda Islands in 1621. (The Spanish had similarly made use of Japanese mercenaries in the conquest of various locations in the Philippines.) This period did not last long, as the Japanese proved ultimately too aggressive to lead and eventually the Shogun issued edicts preventing anyone from journeying outside the islands, but it is interesting to see the contradictions played out there once more: this is simultaneously a tale that appalls and enthralls. An illustration of imperial brutality par excellence, and yet the idea of impoverished Japanese samurai seizing their chance to travel to distant lands in order to make something of themselves is also a story of human optimism.

No, don't worry, I'm not going to turn this into one big parallel for D&D adventuring, which is after all just a game, except to say that I think D&D encapsulates the interesting contradictions at the heart of adventure very nicely. D&D PCs tend to do appalling things. But the game itself is an embodiment of optimism: be bold and be somebody. There is no reason why this should have any impact on how the game is played, but it is interesting to reflect on.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

What does an impossibly ancient crocodile's memory look like?

At some point memory becomes mixed together with imagination. There is a vast literature on witness evidence in criminal trials and how unreliable it is: this seems to be because, as soon as something becomes a memory it both divorces itself from what actually happened and also becomes more deeply entrenched. The more frequently you "remember" it, the more it crystallises in your mind, but what is crystallising is generally not the truth. Moreover, memory is in a sense recursive: you don't remember everything that happened in your life in chronological order - it is all jumbled up into segments which sort of loop on themselves (so that you replay certain vivid memories over and over and over again, but completely forget other things). 

There is no reason to suppose that an impossibly ancient crocodile's memory is not the same: a vast and disorganised jumble of things which are probably more than half-imagined, and in which patterns can be discerned within the chaos - recurrent themes which emerge from time to time, which are never the same but sometimes alike.

Of course, there is an eon of memory in there, which means that "what is in the crocodile's memories" is near infinite: the product has to therefore contain some large tables of random inspiration as well as encouragement for a DM to be as free and creative as he wants to be. The whole thing also doesn't have to specifically be a dungeon - there could be huge hex-map wilderness areas in the crocodile's memory as well (which perhaps themselves contain dungeons....which in turn contain huge hex-map wilderness areas...which in turn themselves contain dungeons.... and so forth unto infinity). But here are some ideas for recurrent themes, anyway:

Primordial ocean: storm-wracked seas, broiling heat, strange proto-monstrous lifeforms from obscure and long-dead lineages thronging the water, archipelagos of islands poking through the surface (filled with the speculative imaginings of a crocodilian about what could be beyond the beaches and riparian landscapes; speculative imaginings made real by false memory....) 

Floating cityscapes: coastal communities from long-dead civilizations glimpsed by the crocodile as it traveled the seas, and formulated in its mind into what ever on earth a crocodile would imagine a city to be like: presumably infinite? Presumably beyond the coast such cities could go on forever and ever as far as the crocodile knows? 

Ice: the crocodile has lived through not just one ice age but others - it has seen huge expanses of glacial blue extending from one horizon to another, and seen icebergs the size of islands floating, crewed by God knows what beasts lived in those places in those days....and those beasts are not as they were but as the crocodile falsely remembers and imagines them.

Desert landscapes: when the crocodile traveled up rivers at the time of mankind's birth it found proto-human clans scratching a living from the sub-blasted landscape, and it remembers those people, but not as they were - rather as they have become entrenched in the corridors of its mind through repeated recursive imaginings.

Does this make sense to anybody? I hope it does.