Friday 30 September 2016

Eulogy for a White Ape: On Bathos, Shaggy Dogs, and Archaeology

My character died last week. It was an exemplification of bathos. It has made me revisit that topic - one which I wrote about, I think usefully, before.

The PC in question was a mute white ape, called "The White Ape". The game uses a variant of the Into the Odd ruleset, which basically balances out character generation by giving statistically weaker PCs better/more interesting stuff to start off with. I rolled ridiculously good stats, so I ended up with a difficult starting position: hence, a mute white ape.

I decided early on that my white ape was not going to be a raging John Carter of Mars-style brutish simian, but a contemplative, Buddhist, vegetarian Orang-Utan figure with unusually progressive attitudes. While he was immensely strong and hence useful for that purpose, he tended to rely on his strength reluctantly. He was accompanied everywhere by another PC, an old woman, who he carried around on his shoulders, and who was ostensibly his "mistress" even though they were both classical liberals opposed to slavery.

Playing a mute character is tough. You can't really contribute a great deal to any sort of planning or interaction with NPCs. But I was interested in the white ape and how things were progressing for him.

Last session, for complicated reasons, it was decided that my white ape was going to enter into gladiatorial combat with a crab-man at a festival for the sake of a bet. The crab-man was owned by a powerful slug-man merchant who it already seemed was going to turn into some sort of arch-enemy. There was a lot riding on the bet: if we won, we would receive a big payment of the food which we needed for further expeditions and prevent our hirelings deserting us. If we lost, we would lose vast riches and be in even direr straits than before. (You may legitimately ask why we took on the bet in the first place rather than just buying food - we couldn't do this because, I think, the counterparty to the bet had lots of food and wouldn't give it to us through a straight trade.)

The white ape was a little reluctant to participate in these brutish games but agreed to do so for the greater good, and played up his role by acting as ferociously and aggressively as he could. The fight was an entertaining back and forth in which the white ape showed off his judo skills and the crab-man use its speed and armour to inflict serious injuries. Eventually the white ape ripped off one of the crab-man's forearms and began opening and shutting the claws in mocking triumph while the crowd bayed for blood...

At this point, if games were like films (or if we were playing a game which excluded random elements or the DM was in favour of fudging) my white ape would have gone on to win the fight and be lauded for his bravery and strength. We would have got the food we needed, made an enemy in the form of the slug-man, and my white ape would have won greater respect from the party and also perhaps further developed a conflict in his character between societal expectations of brutality and his own sensitive nature.

But instead, the crab-man had one last attack which gave the white ape a serious injury, I spectacularly failed a save, and the ape was finished. He lay there semi-conscious and hors de combat, trying to communicate to the crab-man that there were no hard feelings and that the two of them were, in the grand scheme of things, mere pawns together at the whim of the imperialist forces which oppressed them. Rather than suffer the ignominy of having the crab-man finish me off, the leader of the party blew the white ape's brains out with a pistol. We lost the bet and most of our wealth and now we are in an even worse position than before.

This is what dice and randomization can do - they throw off what might be thought of as narrative convention. If you were telling a story or playing an RPG whose aim was to consciously create a story, you would not have allowed this to happen - bathos is not conventionally satisfying. Some DMs would have fudged the crab-man's attack roll or figured out some way to let the white ape survive because the session ended on such an anticlimax. But that is not what we're playing for.
Rather, we're playing to see what happens. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is space to make this an explicit goal or design choice in a set of rules for RPGs.

The model for a good RPG campaign is not really a film or novel, but a shaggy dog story. That's not to suggest that what goes on in the game has to always be funny or frivolous - but rather, that it is a long and ongoing process of events which are connected to each other by a thread of cause and effect (however loose), not conventional narrative drama.

Think of it this way. An RPG campaign is a concatenation of events. A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, all the way to Z and back again. What is interesting is how, after the event, you can see how all of those events were connected. The satisfaction comes from being able to look back at that long chain, at each link in it, and see retrospectively how it all came to pass. An unpredictable and impossible-to-make-up sequence of happenings all following on from one another as if they were following some strange path that was not at any stage consciously created. If there is any point at which the chain of causation was fiddled with, by connivance between DM and players or by fudging, it seems to me that something is lost. You can't, at the end point of a campaign, look back at all of the things that happened and say, "Ah, yes, what a great long chain of surprising events, all connected to one another in interesting ways by the mystery of chance and the phenomenon of causation." Instead, you have to say, "Ah yes, what a great long chain of pre-planned events following the conventions of narrative." The former seems more interesting to me: like a documentary, history book or biography rather than a novel.

Indeed, maybe those terms are more useful even than "shaggy dog story" - an RPG campaign is archaeology rather than fiction: an archaeology of made-up events that you can only uncover by looking at it backwards. It all makes sense in the end, in its own way, but not because of convention or cliche - but because it couldn't be otherwise. It is what happened.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Of Night and Day and Heart Beat Time

I have been thinking some more about day to day life in the Fixed World, mainly because I am a player in Patrick's game, which is set in a world where it is basically always night.

The most significant logistical problem for anybody wanting to run a campaign in the Fixed World is sleep. In some places it is always night, in others always mid-day, in others always morning, and in others always evening. How do people figure out when to sleep in such a world?

It strikes me that things would work out as follows.

First, in ye olden times, people knew what the time was in their local region, but had little conception of what it was outside it. As far as you were concerned, in your village, there was morning, noon and night, and the sun moved around in its cycles, and you slept during the night time. The fact a few days' travel to the North or South the night would come slightly earlier or later depending on the time of year would be neither here nor there. You wouldn't care, because you would rarely leave your own village and the area around it.

So for the vast majority of the population, "when to sleep" is just a matter of local custom, determined by tiredness or some sort of arcane ritual. Perhaps the oldest person in the village decides, when he gets tired, that it is time for everybody to sleep. He gives some signal - rings a bell, puts up smoke rings, etc. - and that's the cue for most people to sleep while others keep watch. A big element of war would be trying to catch your enemies out when they are mostly asleep. Alternatively, a system might evolve in which the custom is that different people sleep at different times in a sort of rota: about a quarter of the population would be asleep at any one time, with the others hunting, farming, and going about their business. This means, of course, that there would be no downtime - work would go on continually.

The point is, it doesn't particularly matter that the people in village X have different sleep patterns to those in village Z. It doesn't concern them because they don't live in a world in which instantaneous communication exists, and for the vast majority of the time they exist in a purely local context. It would only chiefly matter for ports - you would get ships arriving without any idea whether the locals would be currently asleep or not. Ports would pretty much have to follow the sleep-rota model.

Planning would be extremely difficult, of course, because you wouldn't be able to say "I'll meet you in an hour" or "I'll meet you in the evening" - those concepts wouldn't really exist. Because the sun doesn't move, there are no hours. I think, probably, people would develop a very sophisticated understanding of other units of time - for instance, heart beats. Most adults' heart beats have an approximately similar rate. Because there would be no other way of doing it, I expect that people would have units of heartbeats - so while you wouldn't say "I'll meet you in an hour", you would say something like "I'll meet you in 100 time units", each time unit being 100 heart beats. It would be so crucial to be able to measure the world in this approximate way that people would be able to very accurately estimate what the real, "normal" heart beat rate was if, for example, they had been doing lots of running. They would be very good at roughly guessing how many time units are passing as they go about their business.

(This reminds me a little of Lewis Carroll's musings about the international date line.)

For kingdoms and empires, official measurement of time might be more important than simply figuring out when to sleep. Things like weeks, months and years are very convenient - it is hard to imagine people being satisfied saying "The Battle of Waterloo happened about 2 million hours ago." What you would want is a system of units: an A is 100 heart beats; a B is 10 As, a C is 10 Bs, and so on. And you would want to keep track of that in a standardized way. That would mean standardization of what a heart beat constitutes. It doesn't matter that the hoi polloi in the provinces use rough and ready rules of thumb. For official purposes there has to be a standard rate. And this would have to be the same wherever officialdom reigned.

I imagine a kingdom where the keeping of time is deemed important. Each major settlement is required to be on the same footing as regards when events have occurred or will occur. So they all need to have the same official heart beat rate.

How this is arranged is as follows. Some people exist whose reason for living is to provide a regular heart beat. These people are carefully selected when they reach the age of thirteen: every child is at that age brought to their nearest major town. There, if their heart beat happens to exactly match the required rate, they are immediately taken from their parents and sequestered as time pieces. They are from that moment forbidden to exert themselves in any way, and ensconsed in chambers where there is no external stimulus. They are kept constantly drugged with a special gas which regulates their breathing and prevents them from having any sort of emotional spasm which would cause their heart rate to fluctuate. They live in this way, in a sort of suspended animation, while their heart rate is continually monitored: there is an entire caste of monks whose job it is to take it in turns to sit and listen to the heart beat of the human time piece, all the while making small marks on a piece of parchment with each heartbeat. After 5,000 heart beats, the first monk steps aside and another swiftly takes his place to continue the marking. And these monks are surrounded by a host of neophytes and acolytes who constantly replenish the parchment and ink and carry it away to be officially counted. And in a room next door are the official counters, piling up all the many sheafs of parchment, each of which is marked 5,000 times for 5,000 heart beats. And each pile of 5,000 sheafs makes 25 million. And so on and so on. Entire rooms, warehouses, filled with paper, all marked with tiny stripes of ink, so that if anybody asks, they know when it was that such-and-such an event occurred - how many sheafs ago it was that the storm came, or the ship sank, or the meteor fell from the sky.....

Alternatively, a wizard does it.

Monday 26 September 2016

D&D in the Media Watch and the End of Social Media

D&D gets a mention in this article in The Grauniad today. "[R]ole-play titles such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which players imagine themselves as heroic warriors and wizards in imaginary, fantasy worlds..."

There is a typically Guardian spin put on what it calls "the rise and rise of tabletop gaming" - the writer attributes it at least partly to the fact that apparently board games nowadays allow everybody to be nice to each other and cooperate, rather than those horrible traumatic competitive games of yesteryear like, er, Monopoly and Cluedo. (Trigger warning for competitiveness!)

The fact that board games are sociable and allow us to re-connect with the physical world is surely more to do with it. One should never make predictions, of course, but here's one: board games and RPGs are going to grow in popularity and this is going to be correlated with larger numbers of people quitting or taking "detoxes" from social media and smartphones.

Friday 23 September 2016

I'm not a Businessman, I'm a Business, Man

I am ambivalent about the lionization of the entrepreneur which has been a growing feature of British society since as long as I can remember. I am half-persuaded by the view that the end state of modern neo-liberal capitalism is a society in which all of the behaviour of homo economicus becomes subjected to market rationalities and theories of exchange until there is nothing left except rational (or irrational) actors existing in atomised isolation - a society in which everybody is an entrepreneur because human social contact is only competition and exchange and nothing else.

But I am also half-persuaded by the idea that it would be great to write RPGs for a living. What would I need to be able to do this?

I stress that this post is not serious. I like the "proper" job which I have and I'm not about to quit it. And I think a life of sitting alone at a keyboard trying to create things would quickly turn me into some sort of long-bearded, filthy weirdo. Human company and variety are important.

However, the freedom to just do something you enjoy, free from the constraints of management or control, sounds very fulfilling. I have worked out that I would probably need to produce a Yoon-Suin every two months in order to be able to live in the manner "to which I have become accustomed" based on prior performance. If I got better with pricing, budgeting, marketing and all of that jazz, then who knows? Could be every three or four months.

Could I do that? Perhaps I could. Free from all other time constraints, I might be able to write things that quickly. On the other hand, the model is based on the heroic assumptions that I could write things that are consistently as good, that the market could bear a new thing by me every three months or so, and that my financial circumstances wouldn't change. Perhaps the most heroic assumption of all is that the pressure to produce wouldn't play on my mind until I was living like a crazed rat. And I want to be a crazed rat even less than a long-bearded filthy weirdo.

We think about money a lot. The requirement to make it limits our freedom. But at the same time, freedom and money are inextricably linked - the more you have of the latter, the more you have of the former. It is because I have money, at least a reasonable salary, that I do not feel the pressures and worries that might very well cripple and restrict me from doing anything creative at all. It is because I have the freedom that comes with money that I can create. By some strange perversity, if I had more freedom my capacity to create might be critically undermined.

"I listen to money singing. It's like looking down from long french windows at a provincial town, the slums, the canals, the churches ornate and mad in the evening sun. It is intensely sad."

Thursday 22 September 2016

Shadowrun, Future Maztica and Wood Pigeons

Zak S wrote a post about Shadowrun. In the G+ comments I wrote:

I have written about this before on my blog I think. (I have written so many entries by know I forget what I have actually published and what was just an idea for a post which I never wrote.) Cyberpunk as a genre really works best when predicated on the notion that it is fiction about the people who the future has left behind. That's the relentless focus of Gibson's work anyway. I think there is scope for doing the same with Shadowrun. There is now magic in the world, and elves and dragons and whatnot, so the focus is PCs as members of the measly non-magical human race, trying to make a go of it. Fundamentally though, I think Shadowrun is just kind of a naff concept. Even though I played it a lot back in the day.

As Zak rightly points out, it is all very well saying that, but it is functionally the equivalent of what Shadowrun is anyway: "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations". How do you actually practically make a different form of Shadowrun in which the PCs are part of an anachronistic underclass superannuated by the introduction of magic into the world? I think the broader question here is: Shadowrun is really just Cyberpunk 2020 but with Tolkien furniture all over it (an orc sofa here; an elf desk there; a dragon lava lamp in the corner). It is the ultimate high concept but the concept is only barely, let's say pathetically, followed through. It is Cyberpunk 2020 except you can be an orc and/or a magic user in it, if you want. I don't think that is really good enough.

A while ago I wrote a post about Future Maztica, following an idea I had to try to subvert the absurd, stupid and boring decision to make DM's Guild all about the Forgotten Realms. Let's use this as a starting point, because Future Maztica interests me a heck of a lot more than Shadowrun's default of orcs, elves and dragons. The basic idea of Future Maztica is fantasy Aztecs in the future. There are humans but there are also manscorpions, tabaxi, and yuan-ti, and they, being more powerful, are in charge. Because it's Shadowrun, this happened fairly recently - the world was as it was in 2016. Then it was 2017 and things changed.

What we instantly need to get away from is cybernetic implants and cyberspace. If there was magic in the world, and there were manscorpions and tabaxi and yuan-ti running the show, they wouldn't have any want or need for cybernetic implants, or for that matter the internet or railguns or e-cigarettes. They've got magic. And they come from an orthogonal plane of reality - what they are interested in is just fundamentally not what we are interested in. Social media? Those words have no meaning to a manscorpion. And their claws are rubbish on keyboards.

Rather, it is the superannuated underclass of humans in this society who are using the cybernetic implants and cyberspace. We, the underlings, are still scrabbling around with our smart phones and our laptops and our social media and our televisions - those quaint, innocent tools.

By the same token, what need have the yuan-ti for the limited liability company? What is economic profit to a tabaxi? For them, financial derivatives are little different to the conch shells which neanderthals might swap for the corpse of a deer.

My inkling is this: if Future Maztica were real, we would not understand the goals, drives, ambitions and desires of the elite which in effect ruled us. To us, these alien spirits, who use a "technology" (magic) which we simply cannot fully comprehend, whose minds are totally different to ours, and who are in all probability much more intelligent than us, would come across as being arbitrary and capricious. It wouldn't do much good to try to pre-empt their actions - we would be fundamentally reactive.

In a sense, we would be a little like the real Aztecs were when faced with the conquistadors for the first time, or like the Australian aborigines were when faced with European colonisers. There is a tale (which may be apocryphal) which tells us that the people of Central America thought that men riding on horseback were one animal on first sight - because the idea of a man riding a horse (they had never even seen horses or imagined such a thing existed) was so alien to them. Similarly, there is another (possibly also apocryphal) tale that when Australian aborigines first saw a European sailing ship they described it using their word for an evil spirit, because that was all they could really conceptualise it as. The difference, of course, is that real Aztecs and Australian aborigines were humans just like the Europeans were humans, no less intelligent, and could very quickly figure out what these interlopers were, what they wanted, and what their technology could do. But manscorpions, tabaxi and yuan-ti (at least as I think of them) are more intelligent, and not human, and do not use technology which functions on the basis of laws of physics that we know of. So we would be in a position of permanent befuddlement and mystery about precisely what these ruling classes could do; we might be able, after a fashion, to guess at motives and abilities and beliefs, but nothing more than that.

Perhaps a better analogy is animals. Think of the animals you interact with regularly - your dog, cat or budgie, or the birds you put seeds out for in the garden. Those animals don't really understand who you are or why you are doing it. They simply don't have the intelligence nor the shared assumptions. They can react to, and to an extent predict, what you are going to do - but they don't know why it is happening. I have a few bird feeders in my garden. When I put new seed in it, a few wood pigeons and collared doves are always watching. This is because they know that when I do that, it won't be long before the local flock of sparrows (who assign a lookout - I've noticed this too) come along and start to eat it, but they're so messy that the majority of the seed ends up on the lawn for the wood pigeons to scoff. None of these actors knows who I am, why I put seed out, or how I get the seed - I suppose we can ponder to what extent they understand that I am actually doing it rather than the seed spontaneously being there shortly after I have visited the feeder. But they can arrange their behaviour by watching this all unfold and learning from it. Humans in Future Maztica would be a bit like that.

So Future Maztica would be a society which is not so much divided along lines of technology and wealth, as in a cyberpunk society. Rather, it would be a society which is divided along more stark, naked grounds: knowledge, and hence power. There is an elite which rules because it is manifestly more intelligent and powerful. It has no particular interest in anything as prosaic as wealth - because that is just a means to an end, at which they are already located.

What do the PCs in such a game do, then? How does all of this depart from "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations"?

The touchstone, I think, is more Call of Cthulhu than Cyberpunk. The game would be more about figuring things out than it would be about stealing. What happens in a Call of Cthulhu game, if you boil it down to its essence? The PCs have all sorts of different clues about things, and discover more; gradually they tease out some tiny threads that hint at a grand tapestry underneath. They will never get the full picture because that would go against everything Lovecraft's fiction stands for. They learn a tiny bit. Then they go insane.

Future Maztica would be something like this. I picture a society in which "the 1%" are something entirely different - weird magical beings which have manifested in this world from another reality. They create a separate layer of society which exists above but also in parallel with ours - we still have our countries, our politicians, our economies and maybe even our wars, but overarching all of that is another social reality whose nature is unknowable. It all goes on somewhere else: in vast complexes behind huge walls, or underground, or on airships, or any other place that is inaccessible to the human hoi polloi. Sometimes the two different societies interface with one another, but this happens seemingly randomly or in a fashion which can't easily be predicted - like, for instance, when the manscorpions descend to order Mr Smith to give them his firstborn, or when the yuan-ti order the government of Sri Lanka to eject the Brazilian ambassador, or when human powers exercise their agency to call on the tabaxi for aid in return for some obscure task or gift.

The PCs' "job", such as it is, is to try and see behind all of this - to get a glimpse at the knowledge and power possessed by the magical elite. Their motives are akin to those of Call of Cthulhu investigators - they want knowledge for its own sake; they want power; they want information to help them; they are searching for somebody lost or taken, etc. They are not "punks" on the make. They are doing paranormal research, except that it is acknowledged fact that the paranormal exists, is fact, and exercises great power over the "real" world. They are trying to tease out some of the threads of the grand tapestry beneath. Or, to put it another way, they are pigeons trying to figure out how best to get some seeds from a bird feeder.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

The Mask Worn by the Night Sky

A crack only wide enough to squeeze through; on the other side is a space just big enough for one person to stand and turn around. Inside is a fragment of Sese-Mahuru-Bau's memory of his people's folklore: a dark and starry humanoid figure, as though composed of a man-sized shard of the night sky. It wears a mask made from bamboo, decorated with stark white clay paint, with a shock of a red beard and a high flat crest extending up from the forehead. The eyes are encircled in black. The night-sky figure itself is intangible and non-corporeal, except for a tingling sensation like pins and needles felt, for example, in a forefinger extended to try to touch it. It stands motionless and yet somehow communicates the sense that it is conscious and longs for the release that can only come with removal of the mask. The viewer must successfully save vs magic to resist the urge to take it off. Removing the mask causes the night-sky figure to instantly disappear.

As soon as the mask is put on by another person, it locks in place and cannot be removed. Over the course of the next hour, the wearer begins to feel the sensation of a painful tingling, growing stronger and stronger, throughout his body, as though from the inside out. His companions, at the same time, notice his flesh beginning to darken and fade, as he gradually transforms into a non-corporeal fragment of the dark firmament.

Once the transformation is complete the wearer is non-corporeal (except for the mask) and cannot be harmed or touched; he can also reach through physical objects without difficulty. He exists in the world of the night time, and can see in the darkness as though it is light, but is blind in the bright light of the day. If the mask is removed he ceases to exist. Eventually that is what he will long for.

Monday 19 September 2016

The Ligottian Shift; or Three Scenes from Horror Games Not Played

I have been reading Thomas Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe, recently released as a Penguin Classic after being near-enough impossible to get hold of prior to that. I am a great fan of Ligotti. So I feel awful using the word "cliche" to describe the work of a writer who is so distinctive and special. But I do think, after reading most of his short fiction, that I have worked out the one element that appears with enough regularity to merit the term; last night I was thinking about this and decided to call it "The Ligottian Shift".

I don't want to spoil any of Ligotti's stories for those who haven't read them, but those who have will know what I mean when I mention stories like "Dream of a Mannikin", "Eye of the Lynx", "The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise", "Gas Station Carnivals", or "The Bungalow House". (There will be others - these are the ones I thought of off the top of my head.) What tends to happen is this: there is a setup which makes you feel very uneasy. Often it has a kind of mini-horror story which exists within the first half of the story proper, so that you get a sort of false climax before the climax proper. Then at some undefined point, in a very seamless way, the perspective changes so that you find that the narrator is now somebody or someone else, or in a radically different situation, but you don't quite know why or how. All of a sudden the terms on which you understood the story are different to what you thought they were. You had bought into one narrative and now you are reading something altogether different. Everything has turned itself around. (The last section of "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" suggests to me that Ligotti is more than aware that this is his very special and unique trick.)

This is, of course, what makes Ligotti's work so compelling - the reader is not allowed to settle, because of the content but also because of the form. (In some stories, like "Purity", it feels almost impossible to work out quite how things are holding together, like the narrative is a kind of slippery eel you are trying to grab with wet hands. All you know is that you are scared and you don't know why.)

I got to thinking about this and how you might incorporate something like a Ligottian Shift into a horror or horror-inflected game. One of the key elements of the Ligottian Shift is not so much reversal as a side-step - things don't flip so much as reconfigure, like a kaleidoscope being twisted. What the DM would need to do would be to, at a certain point, change the fundamental assumptions on which the game has been based - it's not a plot twist that we're interested in, but a form twist. What kind of thing am I talking about?

Imagine that you are a playing in a gaming session. The DM describes your characters doing something typically Call of Cthulhu-esque - let's say they've broken into the mansion of some rich eccentric in search of clues because they think he is associated with a cult. They are looking in rooms, in desks, under furniture, and so on, but at some point it becomes apparent that actually they are not in his mansion house at all but are in his mind, in which they are now trapped - they are in a memory-construct of his house and "outside" the doors and windows there is only blank nothingness. Somehow, imperceptibly, things have shifted so that they are not in the real world, investigating the mansion house, but rather trapped inside the creation of the mind of their erstwhile target of whom they are now the unwitting playthings. Crucially, the DM has not informed them that this shift has taken place. It just has.

Or; imagine that you are in a dungeoneering session. The PCs come across a meek kobold who they put in a wooden cage and start interrogating. It is pliant and pathetic and snivelling. It answers all of their questions. But then one of the PCs notices that...hang on...the kobold isn't in a cage. It is on the outside of the cage and they are in it. And suddenly it doesn't seem so pliant and pathetic and snivelling. And suddenly, looking around, the walls and ceiling seem much higher and further to the PCs. And turning back to the kobold, it is not as small as it was. It is actually now much much bigger than them.

Or, imagine that you are in a World of Darkness or Unknown Armies sort of game. The PCs are sitting in the office of somebody they may, or may not, know is a magician of some kind. On the desk is a snow globe. The DM tells you that your character has noticed this snow globe and is particularly drawn to it. He asks you to describe an incident from your character's past in which heavy snow was falling. You think for a second and come up with some story about how when your PC was a child he went to the funeral of his favourite uncle (who happened to be the one who initiated him into the occult). At the funeral, the snow was falling heavily, so much so that people had to dig out the hearse. You warm to your tale in the telling, and start feeling pleased about your creativity. The DM tells you that your PC is now back in his memories of childhood snow - so vividly that he can practically feel the snow flakes touching his cheeks, and the chill pinch the top of his nose. But that as he steps away from watching his family members shovelling snow and turns around, he looks up and sees a strange curved glass screen in front and above of him. He can't go through it. It is like a clear, invisible barrier. He turns back, but his family, the hearse, the funeral scene have disappeared. There is now just snow and glass. He is trapped inside the snow globe. And in the shell of the body which he once inhabited, way back in the magician's office, is a spirit of snow which has replaced him.

I would like to do this sort of thing in a game some time.

Friday 16 September 2016

Dungeonizing the Wilderness

From Seeing Like a State, an extremely important book which everybody should read:

[Edmund Leach] suggested that we look at the precolonial Burmese state not as a physically contiguous territory, as we would in the contest of modern states, but as a complex patchwork that followed an entirely different logic. We should picture the kingdom, he insisted, in terms of horizontal slices through the topography. Following this logic, Burma was, in practice, a collection of all the sedentary, wet-rice producers settled in valleys within the ambit of the court center. These would be...the state spaces. The next horizontal stratum of the landscape from, say, five hundred feet to fifteen hundred feet would, given its different ecology, contain inhabitants who practice shifting cultivation, were more widely scattered and were therefore less promising subjects of appropriation. They were not an integral part of the kingdom, although they might regularly send tribute to the central court. Still higher elevations would constitute yet other ecological, political and cultural zones. What Leach proposed, in effect, is that we consider all relatively dense, wet-rice settlements within range of the capital as "the kingdom" and the rest, even if relatively close to the capital, as "nonstate spaces". 
The role of statecraft in this context becomes that of maximising the productive, settled population in such state spaces while at the same time drawing tribute from, or at least neutralizing, the nonstate spaces. These stateless zones have always played a potentially subversive role, both symbolically and practically. From the vantage point of the court, such spaces and their inhabitants were the exemplars of rudeness, disorder and barbarity against which the civility, order and sophistication of the centre could be gauged. Such spaces, it goes without saying, have served as refuges for fleeing peasants, rebels, bandits, and the pretenders who have often threatened kingdoms. 

Two thoughts emerge from this.

1) I dimly perceive a map which is not birds-eye, but horizontal. A bit like what Christian Kessler has been posting about lately. It is subdivided into strata, each of which has a distinct character based on its elevation and ecology - getting more dangerous and strange as the elevation increases. This is in effect a way of (let's coin a phrase, shall we?) dungeonizing the wilderness. Think of a city state in a valley. All the way up and down the valley it exerts control and authority. But on either side are very tall steep hills and then mountains, which ascend ruggedly and rapidly. You wouldn't have to travel far from the city to be in a radically different, alien environment which civilization simply cannot touch. And moreover, it is stratified into levels - of, say, 500 feet of elevation. What this is is, in effect, a dungeon that is upside down: the higher you go, the more dangerous things are and the more potential there is for discovering things that are amazingly weird and/or valuable. Here the wilderness is not just a hex-map in which the PCs might equally be confronted by a dragon as by some kobolds; it takes on the same function of a dungeon in providing a somewhat predictable range of risk-taking.

2) To the city state discussed above, the wilderness is a threat which it wants to neutralize, and ideally draw tribute from. For some reason I have never really thought about this properly before, but why not conceptualise PCs in a D&D game as being representatives of the "State" rather than simply rogue-like murderhobos - competent independent frontiersman types with letters of marque, or even diplomats, sent to the dungeon or the wilderness to neutralize it? Not in the sense of clearing it, but in the sense of reducing its capacity to pose a threat - by creating tributary relationships (one way or the other), trade links or even ultimately civilizing it? In a strange way this seems to have been what my Three/Four Mysterious Weirdos campaign ended up resembling without me quite realising it. I find the concept interesting partly because it subverts so many typical D&D assumptions, but also because it puts the PCs in a role which is (at least in my view) fundamentally wrong-headed, in an intriguing way.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Ignorance and Knowledge of Medieval Peasants

A question that fascinates me is that of how much your average medieval peasant farmer actually understood of the world. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that what fascinates me is how difficult it is to know the answer to that, or even to understand the bounds of the question itself.

In a post from a while back Tom was arguing that medieval people were predominantly ignorant. He was pointing out that many of them seemed to believe things that were palpably not true and genuinely crazy - like mice being born from the soil itself, or geese growing on trees. It's important to be charitable, of course: it is pretty unfair to say that somebody is "ignorant" about things they couldn't possibly know (like, say, the theory of evolution). But Tom was definitely on to something. For instance, I have recently been reading a book called Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. In it, as an aside, the author mentions that people in the Middle Ages actually seemed to think that swallows went to live under the sea when they migrated. More than that: they thought it was possible to go fishing for swallows with a net in wintertime. Also, the people in his local area, until fairly recently, used to build fires in the homes using elder twigs, wood and bark - which causes cyanide to metabolise in the body and was responsible for them basically slowly killing themselves.

Which is very odd, because this very book is written by a farmer and portrays a very compelling vision of how intimate a connection a farmer (read: peasant) has with the land he farms. He knows every yard of it, and everything about it - how could he not? He works on it every day, and does very little else. How could you and all your relatives go their whole lives working on a farm every day without realising that animals breed by mating with each other just like humans? Would none of you ever have come across the nest of a mouse? Or watched a goose lay eggs?

And this vision of the ignorant and bewildered peasant is matched pound-for-pound by the image of the peasant as possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of his (albeit small) world. Take a passage from Evelyn's Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest Trees, which I came across today for other reasons - it goes on for ages about all the different things an elm tree can be used for and all its characteristics: how it can be used for chopping blocks, for mills, for ship planks below the water line, for providing relief to cattle in its leaves, for healing wounds and cuts or consolidating fractures, etc. etc. If people in ye olde days could know so much about elm trees, why did they have such odd ideas about mice, swallows and geese? More to the point, if they knew so much about elm trees, why were they slowly poisoning themselves with elders? In Guns, Germs and Steel Jarred Diamond describes how hunter gatherers in New Guinea know in precise detail the effects of all of the plants in their area of forest - what's safe to eat and what isn't; what's the tastiest; when fruits ripen, etc. That chimes with plenty of other things I've read and seen. What's the difference between a hunter gatherer in the jungle and a peasant farmer?

It is extremely difficult to put yourself into the shoes of somebody who, in all likelihood, never strayed farther than a day or so from his home in his entire life and never went to school. Everything you would know would be gleaned from the accumulated wisdom of the people around you, from hearsay and conjecture, and from personal practical experience. The question remains: how much would you actually know - and would you think that swallows went to live under the sea in winter?

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Great Illustrations and The Saga of Erik the Viking

Rooting around in old junk from my childhood days, I came across The Saga of Erik the Viking - a children's fantasy adventure book written, somewhat improbably, by the Monty Python member Terry Jones. It's well worth tracking down if you can get it. Unlike most celebs-who-get-book-deals-just-because-they-are-famous around nowadays, Terry Jones can write pretty well, but what makes the book are Michael Foreman's absolutely superlative illustrations. (The same team also created the yet more wonderful Nicobobinus, which is sadly no longer in my possession.) 

Have a look at some of these snaps.

Michael Foreman is first name on the team sheet in my Fantasy Football team of illustrators. If I could choose anybody to illustrate something I created, it may well be him. Is it just because these pictures are watercolour when so little else is nowadays that they are so distinctive? No, it's not just that: it's also the sense of theatricality. Look at the expressions on the faces; the drama of the poses; the larger-than-life movements; the flamboyant way the enchanter plucks the imp from his daughter's hair. There is a fine distinction between this sort of playful exaggeration and the "Look at me, I'm striking an awesome pose!" Wayne Reynolds school of fantasy art that currently dominates, but an important one, I think. One seems delicate and playful. The other seems brash and unsubtle. But there is no accounting for taste.

Monday 12 September 2016

Exploring the Mind of a Crocodile

A few months ago I pondered, what does an impossibly ancient crocodile's memory look like?

I have been doing a bit of thinking and it turns out it looks like this. It's an overview of the setting which I have sent to people contributing art.

The default setting begins in an analogue of New Guinea in the 17th Century, called Paradijs Kolonie (it’s part of the Dutch empire). The crocodile lives in a large lake by a remote village deep in the jungle. It has lived there for centuries, possibly millennia – certainly as long as the village itself has been there. But the crocodile itself is very ancient: it is a relic from the primordial coal swamps from the time before the dinosaurs.

Long ago a shamaness at the village discovered a way to enter the crocodile’s memories. This involved rituals and magic which she kept carefully secret and only taught to one adopted daughter who she selected as the next shamaness. This began a tradition: each shamaness adopts a daughter and teaches her the secret of entering the crocodile’s mind.

The crocodile’s memories, and memories of dreams, form a vast infinite universe which comprise not how the world actually was, but how the crocodile remembers it. In other words, it is the world as it was, but filtered through the crocodile’s suppositions, perspectives, and imaginings. Like all memories, much of it is only tangentially related to reality, and some of it is completely false. It is also attenuated and warped by time and distance and decay. Moreover, it is mixed in with the crocodile’s memories of its own dreams from earlier days. This creates a world that follows unusual anti-logical patterns and reflects not reality but a reflection of it as refracted through a complicated and asymmetric lens.

There are seven different “realms” in the crocodile’s memory, each of which forms chapters in the book. Some are represented as “dungeons”, others hex-maps, and others collections of tables like mini Yoon-Suins.

The Realms of Memory are as follows:

1. Dreams Beneath the Ice. These are the memories of the dreams which the crocodile had while asleep hibernating beneath a vast glacier during an ice age. It consists of a labyrinth of burrows in ice inhabited by the crocodile’s nightmares.

2. Memories of Ruin. These are the memories of the aftermath of the event which caused the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. It is a hex map of a huge blasted wilderness, riven by volcanoes and earthquakes. It is inhabited by the crocodile’s memories of dead and undead non-avian dinosaurs, scavengers like turtles and crocodiles, and the birds and mammals which were poised to inherit the new earth.

3. The Dreamtime of Man. These are the crocodile’s memories of early humans. Because the crocodile did not stray far from rivers in those days, its memories are a huge network of rivers all interconnected, with areas of land in between which are infinitely wide. It is inhabited by the crocodile’s memories of early humans and the megafauna which existed at the time.

4. The Infinite City on the Water. This is the crocodile’s memory of an ancient Venice-like city of canals and docks which it observed from a distance while journeying across the oceans. The colourful clothes of the human population seemed to it like birds, so it remembers the city as being populated by strange bird-men. It is infinite, because the crocodile never entered it and thus never saw the other side.

5. The Trade Winds. This is the crocodile’s memory of the vast archipelagos of the South Pacific, which it swam around in eons past. It witnessed the colonisation of these islands by human peoples, and imagined their boats as strange ocean-dwelling beasts: that is what it now remembers.

6. The Underwater Ziggurats. This is the crocodile’s memory of Atlantis-style cities constructed in distant millennia which are now ruined and submerged in shallow coastal waters. They may or may not have been constructed by aliens (this is the least developed of my ideas; I have never been a fan of the “Aliens taught the Ancient Egyptians/Andeans/Minoans how to build!!!!1” theories espoused by eccentric conspiracists, so I wouldn’t want people to think that was what I was alluding to, but I recognise it could be cool for gaming purposes).

7. The Primordial Swamp. The primitive, early coal swamps of the young Earth, into which the crocodile was born, populated by the memories of strange amphibian and reptilian creatures which lived in that cradle of vertebrate life. Also contains many varieties of crocodilian – including the memories of the parents and siblings of The Crocodile itself…

That is the basic geography of the megadungeon. I think of it as the first layer of the setting. There is a second layer on top, which fundamentally changes the contents and aesthetic of the first layer.

The second layer is the Seven Who Went Before. These are seven heroes, wanderers or adventurers who entered the crocodile’s mind in ages past for various reasons, and stayed there. Each of them, naturally enough, has made home in one of the “realms” of memory, and caused changes in its contents. This is for two reasons:

Reason a. If somebody enters the crocodile’s mind and interacts with the memories there, he or she creates new memories which the crocodile now falsely “remembers”. So if you were to enter the crocodile’s memory and, say, teach a creature there how to use a sword, the crocodile would now remember those creatures being able to use swords. It would also remember  you – although in the not-quite-right way that all memories are.

Reason b. If somebody with significant puissance enters the crocodile’s mind and stays there, his or her memories and memories of dreams may start to exert an influence there and manifest themselves as “real”. This is because, the longer one stays in the crocodile’s mind, the more one becomes a part of it, subsuming one’s consciousness into that of the great reptile, but also altering it with the contents of one’s own mind.

So each of the Seven Who Went Before has fundamentally altered the character of the “realm” in which he or she is in. While parts of it are “pure” memories of the crocodile, other parts are amalgams of its memories and those of whichever of the Seven is nearby. This manifests itself as follows.

1. The Dreams Beneath the Ice are inhabited by Sese-Mahuru-Bau, a young jungle warrior/hunter who entered the crocodile’s mind in search of a dowry to pay the father of the girl he loved. Because of his presence in the Dreams, there exist beings from the legendarium of his tribe there too, as well as his memories of his forest home. Also, because he brought with him a very puissant sense of love, passion, lust and competitiveness, that has affected the entire character of everything around him.

2. The Memories of Ruin are inhabited by Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, a Neoplatonist philosopher from the Near East circa 900 AD. He entered the crocodile’s mind in search of truth and enlightenment – of oneness with the universe. Because of his presence in the Memories, there exist many philosophers, religionists and supernatural beings from his memories and dreams there now too, as well as the keen sense of the power of philosophy and the mind amidst the inhabitants.

3. The Dreamtime of Man is inhabited by Pape Jan, or Prester John, a medieval Ethiopian Christian king who entered the crocodile’s mind in order to convert its inhabitants to Christianity – by fire and sword if necessary. Because of his presence in the Dreamtime, the primitive inhabitants are swept with religious and missionary urges, and fight religious wars as ferocious as any such struggle in the “real world”.

4. The Infinite City on the Water are inhabited by Jorge de Menezez, a Portingale conquistador who came to the village in the jungle and, on hearing about the crocodile, decided to conquer its memory world and bring its contents back to Europe for his King and the Pope. He is a bloodthirsty killer who took into the Infinite City steel armour, swords, and black-powder weapons, and those things have become part of the memories of the crocodile now. Moreover, Jorge de Menezez’s violent nature has also exerted its influence. This makes the Infinite City a place perpetually at war, divided between arquebus-wielding factions of colourful man birds, all of whom fight eternally over its treasures.

5. The Trade Winds are inhabited by Xu Fu, a Chinese wizard from ancient days who came to the village in the jungle in search of the mythical Mount Penglai, the land where the Eight Immortals live, and whose fruit provides eternal life. He entered the mind of the crocodile thinking it may be there. It was not, but the power of his vision has created something like it in the crocodile’s memory: a mountain-island in the middle of the great ocean – a weird Shangri-la which the men from the sea are endlessly seeking in the journeying.

6. The Underwater Ziggurats are inhabited by Anak Wungsu, a Hindu trader from Bali who entered the mind of the crocodile in order to try to find things there to bring back for sale. His obsession with commerce has altered the memories of the crocodile, such that the alien inhabitants of the underwater ruins now create vast and complex trade networks, as frequently riven by trade war and colonialism as the South China Sea in the middle ages.

7. The Primordial Swamp is inhabited by Ebu Gogo. She is the matriarch of an obscure branch of hominid from the Spice Islands, rendered extinct by genocide and disease in an invasion by Portingale privateers. She fled and ultimately found her way to the jungle village, and entered the crocodile’s mind to start a new tribe. She breeds with the strange lifeforms of the ancient times, and the crocodile now remembers its distant birthplace that way – inhabited not just by early amphibians and reptiles, but by the hybrid progeny of those creatures and bipedal hominids.

So that’s the second layer of the setting. There is then a third layer, which is what effect the PCs have on the crocodile’s memory when they enter. I’m currently thinking that through.  

Friday 9 September 2016

The Consequences of Templates

What do White Wolf and Games Workshop have in common? A genius for creating something which I am going to call, for want of a better word, templates. In other words, in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, you're not just a werewolf. You pick from certain werewolf templates (I am a Wendigo; I am a Ragabash, etc.). If you are collecting a Warhammer 40k army, you don't just have to have Space Marines or Imperial Guard army, you pick from templates (Blood Angels, Mordian Iron Guard, etc.). I've written about this before - human beings like to define themselves as belonging to groups, and it's clever to play up to that.

I think the true genius of this, though (as well as it being a great marketing ploy if you know what you are doing, like Games Workshop but unlike White Wolf), is that templates implicitly encourage you to create your own. The existence of different Space Marine Chapters encourages you to think up your own ones: the Purple Rhinos, the Death Dolphins, the Gunboat Diplomats, the Pink Panthers, the Blood Bananas. The existence of different werewolf tribes makes you want to come up with your own: the Yellow Fangs, the Bushy Tails, the Pigeon Fanciers, the Eye Gougers. If there was simply a generic entity known as "the Space Marines", there would be less room for creativity within it. If there were simply "werewolves", there would be less of a spur to the imagination to think up different werewolf types.

The companies in question, of course, to varying degrees discourage that sort of fast-and-loose attitude: Space Marine Chapters other than the main GW "sanctioned" ones rarely get a mention - except in novels, where there's always a bit more leeway for writers to go off-message - and I think I'm right in saying that in Werewolf: the Apocalypse there were only the 13 tribes to pick from and no or little indication that there were others. It may well be that the designers of both games never envisaged players being imaginative enough to pick up the ball and run with it. It doesn't matter: unwittingly or otherwise, the consequences are good ones.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Only in Dreams Pt. II

As I have acknowledged previously, nobody wants to hear about other people's dreams. But as I also put it previously: I am going to do it anyway so fuck you. Mainly because this dream made me feel like I was in some sort of Thomas Ligotti/Clive Barker scenario which could almost appear in a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.

I was on a high, dark staircase that was also a tower - not exactly a spiral, but a staircase wrapping round a central column, with landings at regular intervals. It was high up, and the wind was blowing and it was drizzling with constant rain. There was a wall of sorts on the outside edge of the staircase to stop people falling off, but it was pretty low and easy to look over. In all directions stretched a slate-grey landscape of barren hills.

I was surrounded by a pack of black dogs and for some reason felt like they and I were prisoners or outlaws together - although I was a human, I sense that the dogs were comrades or sympaticos of some kind. We were all being punished for something together, by being kept on one of the landings on the staircase from which we couldn't move. The staircase carried on up (way up, as if to the clouds) and way down, but we couldn't ascend or descend. And our punishment was that we had all had our teeth removed. In order to survive, we had to live off a diet of oysters, mussels, clams and other shellfish which were slid to us down the side of the staircase in a kind of trough/gutter. We had to somehow extricate the meat from inside the shells in order to survive, and then swallow it all whole because we had no teeth.

I never had any glimpse of who it was that was keeping us captive, but for some reason I got the sense that there were armoured figures with spears watching us the entire time.

Then (thankfully) I woke up. There's no punchline. It was terrifying.

Monday 5 September 2016

The Glade of the Scythe Lizard

The Therizinosaurus Glade

The trees here – dying and drooping in the dim light of a bleakly clouded sky – all bear long, powerfully gouged-out scars: bark torn free in curved slices; big branches wrenched downwards exposing seeping wounds; smaller branches stripped of whatever dead leaves once remained. This is the work of the spectre of a beast which once lived off these trees when they were lush and giving of fresh life and able to heal themselves. A remnant which haunts them yet, just as they haunt the land here.

The spectre is of a therizinosaur: a shuffling bipedal shaggy-feathered giant, standing a dozen yards tall, with long groping arms ending in sets of claws up to four feet in length, and a high stretched serpentine neck. Its downward curving mouth contains a rasping tongue. Its feathers are faded and clumps are gone; its movements are shambling and drained of vigor; its eyes are no longer hungry but sad and dead; but it moves still – half-corporeal, half-mad, in a crepuscular mockery of what it once was.

The therizinosaur’s long scythe-like claws are used for feeding – stripping bark and branches so that the creature can get at a tree’s true treasures. While it could use them just as deftly for peeling flesh and detaching limbs, its ghostly presence (an affront to the distinction between death and life) is danger enough.

HD 9+9, AC 16*, AB +8, ATT Two claws (2d6+2)

*Is only half-corporeal and cannot be harmed by non-magical physical attacks.

*Is accompanied by a nimbus of terror and despair. At a distance this manifests itself as a sense of foreboding – a raising of the hairs on the back of the neck (enemies are never surprised). Confronted up close, or seen at any distance, enemies are either stricken by paralysis (cannot move for 1d3 hours), panic (flee insensate in a random direction for 1d3 hours) or paranoia (retreat into hiding somewhere for 1d3 hours) on a failed save vs. magic. After the 1d3 hour period, if the victim is still alive, he or she has no memory of what took place in the period except the vision of the ghost, indelibly marked into his or her psyche - and plagued by dreams in which the creature appears, communicating a sense of longing for unknown release (see below). The therizinosaur has no particular hostility towards the living but will peel and strip them of flesh as it would a tree if close enough to do so.

*Can communicate its mute grief with those who try to make psychic contact, and will plead to be led to living trees where it might find freshness once more. If this is achieved it bestows its blessing.
The Blessing of the Scythe Lizard 
The PC who is blessed can now tear physical objects with his or her fingers. He can do this in combat (doing d3 damage) or damage physical obstacles softer than stone within reason. His fingers can only be used for stripping or tearing, not for constructive purposes such as, for instance, climbing.  

Saturday 3 September 2016

Historical RPG Development: QWERTY not Robot Wars

I have been watching the Robot Wars revamp for the last couple of weeks. For those who don't know the programme, you can probably guess from the name: hobbyists create robots and make them fight. They usually have punnish names ("Sir Killalot") and the creators are usually endearing eccentrics. It is great Sunday evening "I-have-to-go-to-work-tomorrow-but-at-least-I-can-have-a-few-beers-and-watch-Robot-Wars" TV.

I was probably not quite the right age when Robot Wars first came out for me to fall in love with it. It was the late 90s and I think I was in the region of 17 years old; it probably would have captured my imagination a lot more if I had been, say, 12. But I still really enjoyed it - and I'd say that if you can't enjoy a bit of Robot Wars you must have a heart made out of slate.

The most interesting thing about Robot Wars, looking back, was that when it first began you got a lot of different kinds of robots, all with different forms of attack and defence. There were no real expectations about what a "winning robot" would look like, so people tried all kinds of different tactics. It was a sort of mashing together of many different styles. But very quickly almost all robots began to develop common features. First, they have to have a low centre of gravity. Robots get knocked over a lot. And second, by the same token, they have to have a self-righting mechanism. In the early days a robot would get knocked or tossed over and that would be the end of it. Pretty soon all robots had ways of turning themselves the right way up if toppled.

And similarly the great initial variety of robots got sieved into a few basic types. There is the flipper type, which is shaped a bit like a dust pan and drives around quickly trying to wedge its way under other robots and then flip or level them over. There is the spinner type, which has a disc or similar which spins around at ludicrous speeds and does damage to other robots that way. And then there is the shoving type, which just tries to bully other robots into danger zones in the arena (like pits). Most winning robots are variants on these. You still get people who turn up with robots which have, say, a big axe or hammer or saw or whatever, but these tend not to do well. Through the process of competition you get a sort of narrowing of development into certain fairly restrictive pathways.

Let's call this the Robot Wars development model.

Not all development happens this way. Sometimes it doesn't happen through competition, but by accident. The classic example of this is the QWERTY layout for typewriter and computer keyboards. QWERTY may or may not be the best layout for a keyboard. There has been a lot of controversy about this down the decades (you can read about it on the wikipedia article or in a somewhat famous Stephen Jay Gould essay), but really it almost doesn't matter. The simple fact is that QWERTY caught hold of the workplace fairly early on, and got a significant head start on its competitors, and once that had happened, it became destiny. QWERTY is, and will likely remain, the layout for computer keyboards forever and ever and ever (or until the singularity takes over and we have nothing to do except get wheeled around having our every need taken care of, or exist in realms of pure thought, or whatever). This is not because QWERTY was tested against many different alternatives and found to be best. It was just because of fluke and then path dependence.

Let's call this the QWERTY development model.

Perhaps surprisingly, because RPGs are ostensibly in competition with each other (if I spend my pocket money on RuneQuest this month, I won't be spending it on Rolemaster), the development of RPGs leans much more closely towards the QWERTY model than the Robot Wars one. There are some competitors, so D&D does not have the utter dominance that the QWERTY layout has in the keyboard arena, but D&D came along early and established itself and has never looked back. It has been the dominant RPG ever since, and will almost certainly remain so forever and ever (until we are playing RPGs in realms of pure thought). The competitors, such as they are, are mere gadflies on the back of the elephant.

This, I think, makes the RPG industry very unusual. It is hard to think of other commercial sectors which are like that. Coca-Cola is somewhat bigger than competitors in soft drinks, and McDonald's in fast food, but do they quite capture the lingua franca role in their respective arenas that D&D has among RPG hobbyists?

Thursday 1 September 2016

The Floating Man

One of us must suppose that he was just created at a stroke, fully developed and perfectly formed but with his vision shrouded from perceiving all external objects – created floating in the air or in the space, not buffeted by any perceptible current of the air that supports him, his limbs separated and kept out of contact with one another, so that they do not feel each other. Then let the subject consider whether he would affirm the existence of his self. There is no doubt that he would affirm his own existence, although not affirming the reality of any of his limbs or inner organs, his bowels, or heart or brain or any external thing. Indeed he would affirm the existence of this self of his while not affirming that it had any length, breadth or depth. And if it were possible for him in such a state to imagine a hand or any other organ, he would not imagine it to be a part of himself or a condition of his existence.  
-Ibn Sina

Ibn Sina’s thought experiment, designed to illustrate the separation between the body and the soul, always struck Al-Sijistani as a vision from a dream: a man completely suspended, limbs spread out so that he could not feel any part of his own body – with even the fingers wide apart lest they should somehow touch each other. Shrouded from the outside world and unable to perceive anything around him. What would such a man think? What visions would he see? What dreams would possess his mind? Would he perceive the sensation of being trapped? Or would existence for him be a peaceful balm, untroubled by anything except his own contemplations? Al-Sijistani spent many years pondering these questions, and his vision of the The Floating Man has now itself become a feature in the crocodile's mind.

The Floating Man appears as a naked man completely spread-eagled, facing downwards, with eyes closed. He is created perfectly and is an icon of male beauty. He floats some twenty yards in the air, and appears utterly unaware of all around him; he is shrouded from physical attacks by a ball of wind which repels arrows or other attempts to touch him by distance, and magical attempts to physically contact him fizzle. However, anyone possessing the ability to read minds can communicate with him and explore his thoughts, thus revealing the deep mysteries of the universe upon which he has been ruminating.

Anybody exploring the Floating Man's mind, for instance through ESP, should consult the following two tables to determine what he or she discovers, and the side effects.

Side Effects 

1 - The mind reader himself becomes struck by imponderable questions about the nature of his own existence, and enters a profound fugue state from which he cannot be awakened. He can be led around by the hand, but cannot otherwise act.
2 - The mind reader becomes plagued by distracting thoughts about the universe and occasionally wanders off to think. Whenever engaged in an active task of any kind (including combat) roll 1d6: on a roll of 1 the PC wanders off in a random direction for 1d6 hours unless passing a save vs. magic.
3 - The mind reader becomes absent minded and forgetful because he is unable to concentrate on anything except thinking about what he discovered in the Floating Man's mind. If engaged in a task or mission, roll a 1d6 each hour. On a roll of 1 the PC forgets what he is doing.
4 - The mind reader is struck permanently dumb by the profundities he has discovered.
5 - The mind reader loses all sense that the universe has any meaning at all, and is struck by a deep depression as a result. Each day, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1, the PC does nothing and will not engage in any action other than to allow himself to be fed and led around by the hand.
6 - The mind reader feels as though the revelations he has uncovered in the Floating Man's mind have brought him closer to a higher state and is given to ecstatic and eccentric behaviours as a result. Each hour, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1, the PC does something strange, impulsive and dangerous. The DM decides what is most appropriate. 
The various side effects are all permanent and cannot be cured except by a Wish spell or by death and resurrection.  

1 - The PC uncovers the mystery of life and death. He loses hp in the normal way until reduced to 1 hp (or, if damage incurred would normally take his hp total below 1, it stops at 1). At that point he may choose to enter a sanctuary in a liminal state of existence in which he is neither dead nor alive. He can remain there indefinitely until he wishes to leave it.
2 - The PC can now see things as they really are. He can see the magic in all magic things (acts as a permanent Detect Magic spell); can see through polymorphs and illusions; and so on.
3 - The PC now understands physical reality at a new level of profundity, and sees that his body is mere stuff that is the servant of his mind. He can polymorph himself into anything roughly human in shape and size (or any person) once a week for 1d6 hours. 
4 - The PC uncovers the mystery of space-time, and becomes clairvoyant and clairaudient as a result. He can use these abilities once per day to a range of 20 miles.
5 - The PC gains the ability to control others through understanding the mysteries of the soul. This acts like the effects of a Magic Jar spell; it can be used once per week and lasts for 1d6 hours.
6 - The PC understands the mysteries of the fabric of the universe and can enter a non-corporeal state once a day for 30 minutes. In this state he can pass through walls and other physical obstacles, and can only be harmed by magic or magical weapons. His clothes and physical possessions cannot be taken with him.