Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Craft of Writing RPG Materials

Have I blogged about this before? Even recently? Have I been writing this blog so long that I am repeating myself without even knowing it, like some kind of senile robot? Is it fair or reasonable to demand that I remember every single post I've written in 8 years? Are these enough rhetorical questions?

Anyway. Craftsmanship. This is one of the topics that interests me most, and what I devote increasing amounts of time to thinking and writing about in my day job. Naturally, I am likewise increasingly interested in the craft of being a DM and particularly the craft of writing RPG materials.

I am not a great TV watcher, but I do love watching talent competitions. I'm not talking about Britain's Got Talent or the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing or the other vulgar (yes, I'm going to use that word, god damn it) light entertainment shows which are really just about celebrating fame and, well, celebrity. I'm talking about the kind of shows (they may be unique to British TV?) in which talented amateurs in a given field (photography, cooking, etc.) compete against each other over the course of a series of episodes in order to be crowned "the best".

These shows have proliferated like wildfire in the last 5-10 years or so. It used to be just Masterchef, which is still the grandaddy of them all; I sort of love and hate it at the same time, but it is one of the only programmes on TV that I will take time out to watch every day when it's on. But now there are dozens. Off the top of my head, there are ones for baking, photography, sewing, pottery, guitar playing, landscape painting, portrait painting, art generally, and modelling. I expect there are others, and will be in the future.

The ones on Sky Arts are the best, because in their own way they are quite low-key and rigorous, and aren't afraid of either criticism or technical detail. For instance, I've just watched an episode of Guitar Star featuring Nitin Sawhney explaining to a young jazz guitarist how to play a Turkish rhythm in 10/8 time, Preston Reed discussing the importance of strength in keeping time and meter, and a fairly detailed exposition on how to cleanly play the notes in an Iron Maiden riff. I'm a bit of a noodly hobbyist guitarist so I lap that sort of stuff up, but I'll just as happily watch equally recherche discussions of pottery techniques or sewing methods despite having no real interest in doing those hobbies myself - I just like watching craftsmen discussing their craft.

What I like most about these shows is the participants, who are always brilliantly talented, if a little rough around the edges, and totally earnest about wanting to improve. I find this genuinely moving: I'm not sure if there's anything more likely to warm the cockles of my heart about how humanity can rescue itself than seeing people wanting to be good at something and trying hard to better themselves and create stuff - whatever it may be - that will be brilliant and will please others. I am a bit cynical about why it always has to be about competition; I understand that TV is also about entertainment, but I'm not sure why we always have to worry so much about who is the best participant. But still, the fundamental principle is sound: it is right and good and important to have a craft or hobby and try really hard to be better at it.

Anyway, what I want to say with this post is really that I feel that way about writing things for RPGs. I want to try really hard to be better at it. It's a craft, and like all crafts it needs hard work and perseverance. (And huh huh, Christ knows I need it, huh huh.) I don't find mediocrity satisfying, even in something as ultimately meaningless as a book about the memory of a crocodile or a campaign dedicated to replicating the atmosphere of Rules Cyclopedia D&D. I relentlessly want to improve. But are there people around in the hobby like Nitin Sawhney or Preston Reed, who will rigorously help others to get better by offering advice? (I'm not talking about reviews. I'm talking about personal discussions and conversations.) A big part of the problem, for me, is that quite frankly there are very, very few "established figures" in the RPG industry, such as it is, whose work I actually truly respect. In fact there may be, er, two? It's a different matter when it comes to peers, people in this very small business of writing small press DIY D&D stuff. But big figures? Forget it.

This post is rambling - so I will leave it where I started: with me behaving in a way that is reminiscent of a senile robot.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

A Brief Pictoral Introduction to Occidentalism in Fantasy Games

We all know about orientalism and all that jazz. Let's talk about its reverse: occidentalism - Asian fascination with the mysterious and inscrutable West, which is in many ways orientalism's mirror image.

We have the veneration of the aesthetic of the exotic sword-wielding warrior:

We have oddly clean-looking and kitschy pastiches of native scenery.

We have somewhat ignoble magpie-like theft of cultural artefacts.

We have an obsession with depicting the exotic other as irrational and violent...

...while at the same time preternaturally and somewhat paradoxically individually civilized and noble.

And finally, of course, the depictions of the female are sexually charged - exotic playthings; the exciting "other".

I like occidentalism and find it charming. One thing I learned about critical theory while I was an undergraduate, and later, was that the clue is in the name - it's all about ascribing the worst possible motives to the author/creator, so that "orientalism" is seen as some sort of sinister replication of racialized and colonial power structures, rather than simply a perfectly natural fascination with difference and, ultimately, the complement of genuine interest in a foreign culture. That's how I always took occidentalism, at any rate, when frequently coming across it living in Japan.

Monday 25 July 2016

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Sample Dungeon Section - The Krill and the Basking Mouth

This is a sample of the sort of thing I'm working on for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. BGSJ is a kit for making a megadungeon in a crocodile's mind. Each level has its own distinct character and contents; the first is called "Dreams Under the Ice", and the basic concept for the level is here.

Each level of the crocodile's memory has been invaded by one of the "Seven Who Went Before" - seven different adventurers who each entered the crocodile's mind in a previous age and manipulated things there, wittingly or otherwise, by creating false memories: everything from outside that gets brought into the crocodile's mind may then be subsequently "remembered" by the crocodile. Dreams Under the Ice was invaded by Sese-Mahuru-Bau, a native of Paradijs (mirror-universe New Guinea) who brought with him both items and memories from that place, and these are now intermingled with what the crocodile's true memories of its own dreams are.

So there are in effect three layers of phenomena interacting in the first megadungeon level: the crocodile's original dreams as it lay sleeping in a burrow in a glacier during an ice age; its memories of those dreams, attenuated by time and distance; and the alien items, concepts, emotions and creations which Sese-Mahuru-Bau has brought inside.

With me so far?

This is a small sector of Dreams Under the Ice. (Forgive the naffness of the map. Somebody with artistic talent will be doing it in reality.)

Grey indicates icy rock. Pale blue indicates glacial ice. The red arrows indicate slopes, with the arrow pointing downwards. In icy areas descenders of these slopes must save versus DEX or slip and fall to the bottom for 1d3 hit points of damage, unless aided by gear or some kind (whether rope, crampons, etc.). Ascent in icy areas is impossible unless aided by gear of some kind.

In chamber 1 of this sector there lies an idol that is a refracted false-memory produced by Sese-Mahuru-Bau’s presence in the crocodile’s mind. Its discovery will benefit the PCs considerably, but in order to find and make use of it they must avoid the obstacles of the two Krill Clouds and the Basking Mouth. 
The Krill Clouds 
A softly chittering-clicking-circulating mass of tiny shrimp, no bigger than a man’s fingernail, which fills the air in these chambers like a fine mist - vague, amorphous, and vast. The crocodile swam through such krill clouds once, and later dreamed of that cloying suffocating feeling – as a man dreams, in a nightmare, of a cloud of flies or aphids at his eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth: forcing and wriggling and writhing their way inside him. 
A Krill Cloud fills the air in whatever chamber it inhabits. The tiny shrimp force their way inside the eyes and all uncovered orifices, with predictable consequences: blindness, deafness, impossibility of speech (and hence spellcasting), and so on. The cloud cannot be harmed by physical attacks. If in a chamber containing a Krill Cloud, blinded PCs can grope for an exit tunnel in 1d6 rounds. If they can find some way of keeping the krill from their eyes, visibility remains reduced to 2’. 
These effects are also felt by randomly encountered monsters, unless they do not have physical eyes, ears, and so on. 
When the PCs arrive in room 5, 9 or 10, roll 2d10 to determine which chambers the two Krill Clouds are in (re-roll if scoring a double). 
The Basking Mouth 
The mighty enemy of all of the krill clouds. A huge beast that represents a warped reflection of the crocodile’s memories of a basking shark: a vast open maw on the front of a black squamous finned thing resembling not so much a fish as some huge fat snake. In the crocodile’s dreams it was a great gaping monstrosity which needed only to open its mouth in order to suck in swarms of krill, fish, and indeed the very ocean itself: a kind of gulping bottomless pit into which all living things were poured wherever it swam. When the Basking Mouth appears, all flee.

When the Basking Mouth appears in a chamber, it sucks everything in it into its maw and swallows it – to disappear forever. Any living thing may resist by successfully rolling a STR check, but this provides only one round of free action – if the creature remains in the chamber for the next round no STR check is permitted and it is swallowed automatically. The Basking Mouth remains in a chamber until there is nothing left alive in it. 
The Basking Mouth moves in a set pattern around this set of 10 chambers. When the PCs arrive in chamber 5, 9 or 10, roll a d10. The Basking Mouth is in whatever chamber is indicated (roll again if the result is the same as for the Krill Cloud). It then moves through the chambers in an ascending pattern of odd then even numbers (or vice versa). Thus, if it is initially in chamber 3, it then appears in chambers 5, 7, and 9, then 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10, and then to 1, 3, 5, and so on. If it is initially in chamber 4, it then appears in 8, 6, and 10, then 1, 3, 5, etc. It spends one entire round in a chamber if there is nothing in it. The Basking Mouth does not “move” between chambers, so it does not appear in the corridors between them. It simply manifests itself in each chamber in turn. 
Its stats, if required, are as follows: HD 10+10, AC 18, Move N/A, ATT N/A 
A Krill Cloud knows when the Basking Mouth will next appear in whatever chamber the cloud is in. When the Basking Mouth is due to appear, the Krill Cloud will flee to a randomly-determined neighbouring chamber. Thus, if the Krill Cloud is in room 6 when the Basking Mouth is due to appear in that chamber, it will flee to room 5, 8, 7 or 4 in the round immediately prior to the Basking Mouth’s appearance. If a Krill Cloud is in room 1 when the Basking Mouth is due to appear in that chamber, it will flee to room 2 or 3. And so on.
Room Contents 
Anything that is not fixed in place will be sucked into the maw of the Basking Mouth when it passes. Where no description is given, the room is simply scoured clean. The rooms are all oddly smooth and completely free from dust, earth, etc. 
1 – The Idol. Sese-Mahuru-Bau’s people worshipped many different jungle animal spirits. This is an idol of the tree kangaroo spirit. It is carved from wood and decorated with fern fronds and long red feathers arrayed behind it in a spray of incongruent colour. It is firmly planted into the icy rock beneath it. 
In one paw the tree kangaroo holds a bark mask and in the other a flint knife. It has an open slot in its belly that is a stylised representation of a pouch. Its face has three clear lines cut into its cheeks on either side that are a stylised representation of whiskers. If somebody kneels before the idol and slices with the flint knife three lines into his or her own cheeks that mirror those on the tree kangaroo’s face (permanent -4 to CHA), the idol releases the mask. In order for the idol to release the flint knife, a young animal of any type must be placed inside its pouch.

The mask, when released, can be worn at any time. It allows the wearer to either disguise him- or herself as any human being he or she has seen, or lie with completely believability. The flint knife can be used as a weapon: it is exceptionally sharp and always does maximum damage. 
2 – In the rocky area on the North wall is a manifestation of art from Sese-Mahuru-Bau’s memories. It is a bird of paradise with wide staring eyes, looking straight ahead, and a huge and florid tail spread around it. If anybody attempts to fire a missile weapon in the chamber, they find their attention unavoidably drawn to the mesmerizing eyes of this bird, and their attacks are directed towards it against their will. Painting an exact replica of the pattern on an item – for instance a shield – will result in enemies directing missile attacks fruitlessly against it. 
5 – The walls in this chamber are comprised by a solid mass of trees, ferns, undergrowth, bushes – all petrified by, and partially encased within, shards of ancient blue ice which surround, penetrate, and explode out of them in crystalline arrays. A glaciated forest which constitutes a fragment of Sese-Mahuru-Bau’s memories of his homeland - driven into, and mutated by, the crocodile’s false perception of it. A segment of fantastical reminiscence which the crocodile somehow now imagines it dreamed of in the ancient days. 
Some of the bushes and other plants produce berries – red, yellow, and green. Their effects are exaggerated by the vividness and nostalgia of Sese-Mahuru-Bau’s remembrance. The ripe red berries are delicious and healthful and restore all lost hit points. The ripening yellow berries are bitter and die the eater’s lips and tongue permanently yellow (-2 CHA). The unripe green berries are deadly (save versus poison or die).

7 – A reptilian man, with a face half bright yellow and half bright red, and a body that is royal blue dotted with vivid green. He is trapped within the glacial ice in the Southern wall and his blank dead eyes stare out in mute appeal. The tip of his spear, clutched in one hand, peeps out from the ice. It cannot be removed by force except by somebody with STR of 16+; doing so results in 2 hp damage from scratches by the blade. This spear is blessed to protect the wielder against parrot-men; if carrying it, the wielder always surprises parrot-men and is never surprised by them. 

Tuesday 19 July 2016

The Aesthetics of a Modern Cyberpunk

I've written quite a lot before on the blog about what a modern cyberpunk genre might look like. It would be set in medium-sized, depressed towns rather than big cities. It would involve food crime and theft of IP more than drugs. It would concern non-linear war. Rather than boostergangers, the danger would come from kids brought up on cellphones and twitter who never developed empathy. Rather than megacorporations or the State, freedom would be threatened by the new puritanism of trigger-warning and micro-aggression speech-codes. Rather than nuclear war, the fabric of State and society would be threatened by a broad spectrum of different terrorisms, from suicide bombers to serial killers to football hooligans.

All well and good, but modern cyberpunk would also need to change its aesthetic. 1980s cyberpunk was neon and skyscrapers, mirrorshades and cyberware, LEDs and hovercars. Alienation expressed through slickness, chrome, straight lines and bright lights.

All of that needs to be thrown out. Modern cyberpunk is grass verges that are overgrown because the council can't afford to have them cut. Modern cyberpunk is abandoned industrial estates with trees growing up through the car parks. Modern cyberpunk is white-elephant airports that never had passengers or planes and have now gone to seed. Modern cyberpunk is entire towns overgrown with weeds because nobody walks anywhere anymore and only the roads need to be clear. Modern cyberpunk is waste ground full of long grass, wild flowers, nettles and bees' nests, strung out between shuttered factories. It is former farms half-reclaimed by nature because GM crops take so much less space. It is banks of solar panels and wind farms with greenery flourishing in between. It is school playing fields re-wilded through disuse. Modern cyberpunk is green.

Friday 15 July 2016

I Nurse Ambitions of World Domination

Specifically, I want to create a retroclone of Cyberpunk 2020, which combines the random tables approach of Yoon-Suin (create your own megacorporations, gangs, psychically distant medium-sized town, etc.) with Mike Pondsmith's classic "if you cover them in toxic waste, blast them with dynamite and sink them to the bottom of the ocean they still work" rules.

This will, naturally, be a runaway bestseller which catapults me into Gary Gygax - nay, JK Rowling - realms of wealth and influence.

Monday 11 July 2016

Professional Ethics and Pride

Zak S wrote a post about professionalism. I was going to use it as a springboard to launch into some horrendously pretentious rant about Alistair MacIntyre and Aristotle, but I'll spare you that. Instead, I'll just say this:

Professional ethics are important - or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that professional ethics were once actually thought of as being very important but are now often only nominally important in my professions. Professional ethics are the kind of thing that would once, in a (likely non-existent golden age) have prevented your local bank manager from granting you a loan because he was worried it might not be good for your long-term financial health; or which still prevent doctors from acting against the best interests of their patients or teachers against the best interests of their students. They tend still to be alive in the kind of professions which actually think of themselves as professions - doctors, accountants, lawyers (don't laugh), teachers, actuaries, whatever - but even there they probably have been somewhat eroded. There is some suggestion that this may be because we have become very tick-boxy and superficial about what "ethics" means, and this has resulted in a sense of what is called "ethical fading" in the literature: a tendency among people to see ethics as something that is mostly about process and fulfilling requirements and consequently not to consider whether their actual behaviour is ethical. Form over content, in other words - as long as you are doing the correct procedure that must QED mean you are behaving ethically (even if you actually aren't).

Professional ethics also seem to me to be tied to something we often call "professional pride" - the idea that you have a job to do and that it is important to do it well, for the sake of one's own self respect and for the sake of the image of the profession as a whole. The ideal marriage of professional ethics and professional pride is, let's say, a civil servant who refuses to cut corners not just because it is "the wrong thing to do" but also because it may have negative consequences for the public and for him- or herself; and because he or she actually cares about how the public perceives civil servants.

Anybody who has a profession (and a conscience) probably recognises that there are such things as professional ethics and professional pride and that they matter. Professionalism isn't the same thing as commercialism, for this reason. Commercialism is about making money. Professionalism is about doing a job properly. Everybody also probably recognises that the world works at its best when people who have jobs to do perform them in a professional manner (i.e. with professional pride and a sense of professional ethics).

So while I take the point that the spirit of amateurism (of doing something out of love) is very important in being a DIY RPG designer, I also think that a heavy dose of professional ethics and professional pride are by no means bad things. God knows there are enough failed Kickstarters, unpaid freelancers, doomed projects and pieces of shoddy rubbish out there to suggest that being a good DIY RPG designer means having the right mix of amateurism and professional ethics and professional pride. I by no means having anything like the right mix: I am as lazy, feckless and unethical as they come. But that doesn't mean I can't at least try.

Thursday 7 July 2016

Monsters in the Dreaming

I've posted before about Dreams Beneath the Ice, one of the memory realms (read: megadungeon layers) in Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. The conceit is that, as a young adult, the crocodile explored the world's oceans before burrowing beneath the earth on an island somewhere and hibernating through an ice age. While sleeping, it had dreams of the things it had encountered, and the memories of those dreams still populate part of its mind.

The idea is that in the Dreams Beneath the Ice is a network of burrows, tunnels and caves beneath the earth, but the creatures that are encountered there are mostly sea beasts. They move through the air in the tunnels as though it is water.

Here are some samples.

Storm Shoals

Shoals of fish, like clouds, like tempests beneath the waves: silver flowing billowing broiling masses, each moving as one vast unmeasurable gaseous form. As the crocodile slumbered beneath the ice it dreamed of them: neither hostile nor benevolent, but as mystical and capricious and numinous as the weather. Now they roam the Dreams Beneath the Ice, coming and going as if borne by the wind.

If encountered they swirl by and through like a storm. Roll 1d3 on an encounter. On a roll of 1 the fish simply buffet for 1hp of damage per round. On a roll of 2 the fish bite and gnaw for 1d3 damage per round. On a roll of 3 the sheer force of the fish carries the PCs away to a randomly determined location. (On a result of 1 or 2, the fish remain in place for 1d3 rounds.)

The Eyes of the Deep

In the depths of the oceans dwell big slimy fish as old or older than the crocodile itself – as old as the eons, as old as time, as old as the seas in which they drift. They survive not through grim vigour like the crocodile, but through implacable and insurmountable stillness: allowing the water to carry them through benthic waters so as to expend only the faintest glimmer of energy, and pausing only when necessary to unhinge their jaws to swallow an unfortunate fish. The crocodile knows them well – ancient companions from its youth. It dreamed of their blithe, calm hunger and considered them sentinels, watchers, observers, passers-by: the eyes of the deep, ever present, witnessing and never partaking.

Appears as a large, thick-bodied, grey-blue mucus-covered fish with oversized bulbous staring eyes and a vast mouth. Floats slowly through the water, barely twitching its fins.

HD 7 AC 18 AB +7 ATT Swallow (does 3d6 damage and swallows if doing more than 10 hp; swallowed victims take 1d6 damage per round until death)
*Their eyes are orbs of mesmeric intensity, like infinitely deep blue undersea trenches viewed from above: eye contact (1 in 2 chance for any attacker – roll each round) results in paralysis for 1d3 rounds on a failed save vs magic.
*What the Eyes of the Deep see is communicated somehow to all the other native inhabitants of the realm, who now know where the PCs are.

Intelligent Hunters

Alien intelligences lived in the shallow rocky places under the coastal seas where the crocodile swam and hunted. Muscular invertebrate things moving amongst reefs, in and out of the dappled sunlight beneath kelp forests, between cracks and inside holes. Things with many searching dextrous arms, clever eyes, movements betraying thought and reason. The crocodile saw them, watched them, and knew them for what they were: intelligent hunters, perhaps more intelligent even than itself.

Slumbering under the ice it dreamed of them. Arms moving. Eyes watching. Constantly searching. Constantly moving. Constantly creeping. Constantly hunting. Remorseless, inexorable killers beneath the waves.

The alien intelligences appear as large, fluidly-moving octopodes with sharp slit-like eyes and many long arms which can extend around them for vast distances and which endlessly search for things to kill.

HD 5, AC 14, AB +5 ATT Special
*The alien intelligences have huge numbers of tentacles – an impossible amount for their body’s size, which is up to 10 feet in diameter. However many targets there may be, there are sufficient numbers of tentacles to entangle and bind them and pull them towards the central maw – a sucking sphinctral mouth with endless greed. An Intelligent Hunter attacks all enemies each round with a STR 16 entanglement which hits automatically; each round the enemies are pulled 10’ towards the maw and are instantly killed when they arrive at it.
 *Attacking the tentacles will slice through them and result in one round of freedom on a successful hit doing 6 more more damage, but will not noticeably diminish their number or affect the health of the Intelligent Hunter.

Long-Necked Rivals

Among the crocodile’s rivals in those early days were other reptilian beasts – gracile, sleek, with long muscular necks; true sea dwellers with paddle-like limbs and powerful tails to propel them through the warm seas. Sometimes it fought them. The crocodile was faster, stronger. The long-necked rivals were more flexible, more willing to hunt and fight in groups. The crocodile’s armour protected it. Its rivals bodies gave way under its jaws and tail.

In its dreams, though, they came at it still. Under, above, behind, to the side. Toothed jaws snatching, biting. Plunging at its body on the end of long snake-like necks. In its nightmares it saw them, and writhed and squirmed and wrenched itself away; the memories of those dreams plague it – an eternal struggle against foes which come from every angle and are never at peace.

HD 3, AC 14, AB +4, ATT 1d6+3
*Moves along walls and ceilings as easily as the floor and shows disdain for the effects of gravity. Attacks from above at +4 to AB and from the side at +2 AB.

Globules, Hangers, Hoverers

Jellyfish. Clouds of tiny stinging globules. Floating lumps of translucent blue trailing stingers. Billowing, pulsating, throbbing mounds hanging in the deep. In the eye of the crocodile they were as much a part of its environment as kelp, as fish, as waves, as beaches. Eternal silent companions. Surroundings.

Its armoured skin too thick to be penetrated, and its speed and skill in the water too much to allow itself to be touched by stingers, to the crocodile these things were harmless. But it watched fish die in their unthinking toxic embrace. It knew that to the small or fragile their touch was death. It admired their potency. It knew that it was stronger. In the corridors of the memory of its dreams they float still – fellow travellers from its early life.


Throngs of tiny stingers. They float through the air to surround and sting. They fill a d3x10’ cube and sting automatically, causing weakness (1/4 STR) on a failed save vs poison; the effect lasts for the duration of that day. They do not have HD but can be avoided by moving past, running away, or through blasts of electricity or cold.


They float close to the ceiling like hideous helium balloons, trailing stingers which either kill or paralyse (save vs poison; success means weakness (see above)). Stingers are extremely thin and only spotted on a roll of 1 in 6, or if actively searched for.

HD 1+1, AC 16, ATT poison, #ENC 2d6


Big, translucent, graceful symmetrical discs which shimmer with iridescence as they move through the air. Their stingers mean death.

HD 4, AC 12, ATT poison, #ENC 2d6
*Move in a random direction each turn (use scatter dice); they hit anything in their path automatically – the victims must save vs poison or die.
*Are slow and can be destroyed by fire or electric blasts.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Anything Works If It's Consistent

If you want to move away from Tolkien-esque tropes and create a fantasy setting which lasts, almost anything works as long as it's consistent. I was thinking about this over the weekend while playing Super Mario Bros. Wii (I am behind the times). You can't get further away from Tolkien than the world of Mario. But it is a consistent fantastical milieu nonetheless.

This is achieved through having a selection of core themes or tropes which are ruthlessly and endlessly exploited and repeated. Mario can navigate by moving through pipes. He eats mushrooms which give him special powers. He is aided by mushroom people and a friendly dinosaur. He is confronted by hostile fire-breathing plants, tortoises, evil mushrooms and ghosts. By and large, this collection of things - the furniture of the Mario franchise, so to speak - appears in every single iteration with a few bells and whistles added. You know where you are with it. And in its own way the Mario universe is just as much a fantastical world - a legendarium or sub-creation, if you will - as Tolkien's Middle Earth. There is more to Middle Earth. But the Mario universe presents the player with something which feels coherent in the same way that Tolkien's novels present a coherent milieu to his reader - despite the fact that the Mario universe is absurdist and apparently based on free association rather than careful thought (though not, as some might argue, a piece of surrealist art).

In creating a long-lasting, interesting and innovative fantasy setting, then, I think the most important thing may well simply be to come up with, say, a dozen or so ideas, themes or tropes and make sure they appear consistently. What those ideas, themes or tropes are is probably of secondary importance to their repetitive use. 

Monday 4 July 2016

The Three Witchdoctors

In the sweltering swamps of the lower Sunset River live three witchdoctors. They are blessed by animal spirits in the forest who have endowed them with prodigious gifts; in return the witchdoctors may not belong to any tribe, have any offspring, or love any one or any thing. 

The witchdoctors are able to extend their blessings to others, allowing those who make a significant sacrifice or achieve some great quest to temporarily invoke the relevant blessing - for instance, once per week for the duration of one hour. 


Naasioi represents the steadfast and warlike nature of the dog. He is squat, powerful, pot-bellied, with greying hair in his beard and coating his chest, arms, belly and groin. He wears scraps of fur on his upper arms, and a tail of bone hangs from his belt. His intelligent emotional eyes disguise nothing of what he is thinking.  

He has the following blessings:

Scent of foes. Those endowed with this blessing are never surprised.
Go for the belly. Those endowed with this blessing can identify and target weakness easily - +2 AB.
Loyalty of the pack. The followers, hirelings and henchmen of those endowed with this blessing never check morale.
Show your teeth. Attackers must check morale before attacking those endowed with this blessing.

He casts spells as a 6th level cleric. Hp: 42, AC 14, AB +9. He has a killing club which strikes at the skull unerringly – always doing maximum damage.


Uum represents the stealthy and secretive nature of the spider. He is thin, gangly, and tall, with a black feathered head-dress and face paint. He files his teeth into fangs and speaks in whispers, and hangs those he kills from branches tied in twine. 

He has the following blessings:

Creeping death. Those endowed with this blessing always surprise opponents.
Patience is always rewarded. Those endowed with this blessing can choose to act last in the initiative round and always hit when doing so.
Hunting by leaping. Those endowed with this blessing can jump up to 12’ from a standing position.
Hidden in shadows. Those endowed with this blessing can shrink into narrow spaces (height of 2’ or width of 12 inches).

6th level magic user spells. Hp: 36, AC 16, AB +7. Bolas and poison knife (save vs death).


Jibil represents the fast and violent nature of the hornet. He has narrow aggressive-looking eyes, odd jerking motions, and strangely long legs and short arms. He cuts scars into his skin and decorates in between with bold yellows and reds. 

He has the following blessings:

The Scent of Fear. Those endowed with the blessing can track infallibly those they have encountered at least once.
Panic is My Ally. Opponents of those endowed with this blessing must save vs magic or flee when combat begins, and again if wounded.
Indignant Threat. Those endowed with this blessing must identify a single target when angered; they can then only attack this target, but their attacks against it hit automatically until it is dead.
Sting in the Tail. Those endowed with this blessing can attack and then flee in one round without incurring an attack of opportunity or likewise.

6th level magic user spells. Hp: 37, AC 16, AB +6. Javelin and blow pipe (save vs paralysis).