Monday 31 October 2016

The Night has a thousand eyes, The Day but one

Let's explore a little more this idea of a world in which a day lasts a century.

Imagine the day slowly moving from East to West. In the areas that are light, plants would grow and animals flourish. In the areas that are dark, there would be ice and petrification. In the areas between - the "morning" and "evening" where the light strikes the globe at an angle, there would be drastic spring-like and autumnal changes. In the morning, we would find a world of thawing ice, rivers which have been frozen for 100 years suddenly breaking into motion, glacial flows, and everywhere green plant life emerging. In the evening, we would find the opposite: rivers and lakes freezing over, glaciers expanding, and plants slowly dying.

In such a world, if life could move, it generally would. Almost everything would be migratory and nomadic. The animals would gradually migrate from East to West to maintain the temperature and climate that was optimal for them - this would be unending. The only exceptions would be life forms equipped to live underground (who would largely ignore this slow waltz of the passing days) and those which were able to hibernate for a century.

The humans, who live in the day, would also primarily be migratory. I am picturing nomadic cities: huge trains of carts, caravans, and herd animals which would settle somewhere for a month or year and then move on with the day. Generally, the preference for advanced "civilized" societies would presumably to be remain somewhat to the West of the noon-line, to take advantage of the maximum fertility of plant life which had been exposed to the light for many decades. But I am also picturing entire civilizations founded on animal husbandry rather than agriculture: wildebeest and reindeer herders following the great migrations of those beasts.

In the morning and the evening we would find adventurers and pioneers - especially in the morning as new lands become exposed to warmth and light. People searching for new resources, new pathways, new lands to exploit. Adventurers in the evening would be outlaws and rogues, picking over the detritus left behind in the wake of the cities migrating Eastwards.

In the night live the orcs, and many other things. As evening advances they appear, like the vanguard of the darkness, hunting and raiding. In places, they might tangle with the rearguards of retreating human civilizations - just as, in the morning, human pioneers come across straggling orcs. In the dark places the orcs mine, build, and construct - citadels, tunnels and fortresses, which in the light of day human adventurers might explore.

Orc raiders and other night-time things would also be experts at concealment, though. During the night, they would burrow down into the earth, out of sight, and wait for decades if necessary for day to come so that they could emerge to wreak havoc. Then again, maybe both sides might engage in another sort of migration - from surface to underground and back again. Maybe both humans and orcs would have constructed huge city-states extending up from the surface and deep down into the crust of the world, so that during the day or night respectively they could ascend upwards or downwards as desired? Maybe down there great wars would be fought to try to undermine and destroy each other? Maybe just as the humans were coming to the surface in the light of day, the orcs would be concentrating their efforts on tunneling underneath their cities? And maybe all of this would connect with the vast and endless Underdark that lay deeper still.

Friday 28 October 2016

Tolkien, The Orc, the Barbarian, the Savage, and the Sun

Because I am writing a book in the real world for my real job, I am enjoying re-reading a lot of Foucault. If you want to read philosophy that gives you ideas for games, Foucault may be the best option of all - not least because he is one of the very few philosophers who is fun to read. 

In the 1975-1976 lectures at the College de France (collected in Society Must Be Defended, which like most of the other collections of his lectures is rather inappropriately titled) we find this passage, about the difference between the Savage and the Barbarian. It is long but, as is often the case, worth reading and digesting.

The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization  - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.  
The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder.  
His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes others serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, and so on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage.  
So we can well understand why, in modern juridico-anthropological thought - and even in today’s bucolic and American Utopias - the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give - in accordance with his own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable - and juridical - form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities. He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud, brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians). The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty. Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war . . . the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.”

This, naturally enough, got me thinking amongst other things about orcs. Doesn't Foucault's description of "the barbarian" here remind you of Tolkien's orcs, and those of his imitators? I'm sure, in fact, that Tolkien had some of these thoughts in mind when he was describing his orcs as a kind of external opposition, existing only in opposition to civilization and living a purely military existence with the aims only of theft and conquest. (Although not, of course, remotely free.)

Tolkien's imitators, like the creators of D&D and Warhammer, also played on this theme. In fact, what Foucault is describing is even more fitting for the Warhammer greenskins I knew as a youngster in the early 90s - as a kind of parasitic satanic enemy of the civilized world: "poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free". And free in the true, non-equal, sense of freedom which Foucault earlier identifies in the same course of lectures. The freedom which means being able to trample on the freedom of others rather than the "weak and abstract" type of libertarian freedom which consists in just being free as long as one doesn't infringe on other people's freedoms. (Foucault asks rhetorically at one stage, "What would be the point in being free, and what, in concrete terms, would it mean, if one could not trample on the freedom of others?" He might well have been channeling Grom the Paunch.)

It seems to me, though - and this may be entirely impressionistic - that at some point that view of orcs became a bit unfashionable. When I came back to RPGs and Warhammer and whatnot in the mid-2000s, it seemed to me that everywhere you looked, on forums and elsewhere, that orcs were being rehabilitated and reinterpreted as more akin to Foucault's savage. Fundamentally misunderstood and with the potential to be educated out of savagery. "It has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults," but the orc was conceptualised as being more interestingly presented as a sort of alternative to humans - the opposition between the two being thought of as simply a function of misunderstanding that could be remedied.

There is something very teenage about that rejection of "your father's orc". In actual fact, of course, the Tolkien/Warhammer understanding of orcs is far deeper and richer. The notion of a sort of looking-glass creature which exists not only in opposition to us but to oppose us, and which intends to appropriate our power, wealth and prosperity in order to destroy us, is extremely interesting. A looking-glass creature, or a product of the shadows as we are a product of the light.

A short section prior to all this discussion of barbarians and savages, Foucault paraphrases Boulainvilliers as follows: "Empires...rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory." I found this stunningly interesting. What did he mean by that? Basically that Empires rise and fall cyclically. But let's take it literally: Empires rise and fall depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.

If we are products of the light and orcs are the product of the dark, they live within the dark as much as we live outside of it.

Imagine a world in which a day is extremely long: let's say, a century. The globe spins extremely slowly on its axis. Humans live where it is light. Orcs where it is dark. In the places where day bleeds into night - at the edge of the light/dark, if you like - is a constant shifting front of conquest and retreat: the orcs conquer and take as the dark slowly advances; the humans pack their bags and flee, trying to stay in the light. On the other side of the globe, the orcs are in retreat as the dark recedes, and human pioneers and settlers colonise the bleak barren wilderness that is slowly revealing itself to the day after 100 years of night.

Monday 24 October 2016

Tasu, Qato, and the Hog Sow

Another location from Behind Gently Smiling Jaws:

Sese-Mahuru-Bau's uncle knew of many legends of the forest. He once told the story of Tasu and Qato, the boys raised by a hog sow. 

Tasu and Qato were twins whose mother was killed by the cannibal Tamus. Tamus only realised after delivering the killing blow that the woman was pregnant; he abandoned her body as a result (the eating of pregnant women being taboo) and from it, the twins were born. They lived alone together in the forest until they could walk, and then they were discovered by a huge maternal hog sow who raised them with her piglets. When they became adolescents, the twins heard of this story from a group of passing hunters who had witnessed their mother's death, and they went in search of Tamus to kill him.

The crocodile's memories now contain the legend of the sow, her piglets and the twins. The sow is huge, hairy, and as tough as tree roots, and her strangely comforting smell is a mixture of earth, sweat, and motherly compassion.  She has six piglets who eat, sleep and shit in gleeful ignorance of the world beyond their family.

The twin boys Tasu and Qato accompany the sow everywhere. They are old enough now to have no need of their mother's milk or protection, but will kill and die for her without hesitation or question.

The group live in open area of remembered-dream-forest, used by the twins as a practice range and for hunting small animals. Strange plate-like fungus grows on many of the trees - another legend Sese-Mahuru-Bau's uncle told him about when he was young. If thrown, like a discus, the fungal spores spray out over a wide area in a cloud of powder which enters the throat and lungs and imbues itself there; those infected with the spores must always tell the truth from that point on if they speak.

The Sow: HD 3+1, AC 16, AB+4, Bite (1d6+2, doubled on charge) 
Tasu: HD 1+1, AC 14, AB +3, Club (1d6), Blowpipe (1d2, save vs poison or die as tongue swells and chokes; success means incapacitation for 2d6 rounds) 
Qato: HD 1+1, AC 14, AB +3, Spear (1d6), Blowpipe (1d2, save vs poison or be rendered permanently paraplegic as legs blacken and necrotise; success means incapacitation for 2d6 rounds) 
Tasu and Qato both carry pouches of bullet ants wrapped in leaves. The bite of these ants delivers excruciating pain resulting in vomit and hallucinations (save vs poison or be reduced to 1 hp and incapacitated for one day; success means incapacitation for d6 hours - roll on the hallucinations table in the appendix). If their lives are seriously threatened the twins will throw these pouches like grenades, scattering ants over a radius of 1d6 feet - those within that radius will be bitten automatically. 

Tasu and Qato will ask all travellers if they have seen Tamus or know of his whereabouts. They may provide guidance and assistance in return for help in finding and killing him. 

Friday 21 October 2016

And Even Something Called A Firbolg!

I love it when non-D&D people write about D&D. Guess what! With Volo’s Guide both dungeon masters and players will be able to bring new races to the table, both as player and non-player characters. That includes rules for goblins, orcs and even something called a "firbolg."

Ooh! New races, you say? And as player and non-player characters as well? And what's a firbolg? It sounds awesome.

I should ignore articles like this, because I am just not the target audience and I am also the kind of person who gets profoundly annoyed by people telling me things like "we are living in a post-Game of Thrones world". But still, I can't help but feel that the really interesting and innovative thing to do - the thing that would really set DMs free, expand their minds, empower them, and "inspire new stories at the table" - would be a Monster Manual without the stats, the banal descriptions, the leaden prose, the amusing pseudo-narratives, the prescriptions, the stats. It would have nothing in fact but art. 196 pages of pictures of monsters. Just pictures. No words, except for a short introduction: "Do what you want with this."

That is a bestiary I would pay good money for. Volo can go fuck himself.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Interactive Fiction and Restricted Geography

For a short period of time, I'd say around 2008 or so, I got into what was in my youth called "text adventures" but is nowadays called "interactive fiction" or IF. As with lots of nerd pursuits, it turned out that somewhere between 1985 and 2008, people got a bit serious about what had hitherto been perceived as a childish thing, and did some quite innovative and artistic things with the form. I strongly recommend having a look at some of the work of Adam Cadre and Emily Short, for example. ("Photopia" and "Shrapnel" by Cadre are particular favourites.)

For that short period I tried to experiment with writing my own IF using the natural language programming tool Inform 7. I didn't have the patience for it, though, mainly because I think I was too ambitious and always ended up biting off more than I could chew: too many rooms, too many items, too much detail, too much to keep track of.

Which brings me to what I always rather liked about IF: restricted geography. A good short and interesting IF game works by giving the player a number of room-like locations (these could be natural or artificial) - certainly no more than, say, 20, and enough for the player to get to know and memorise into a mental map. There are a similarly restricted number of NPCs, items and puzzles - again, enough for the player to get to know and work out the relations between. There is skill in doing new and interesting things in that restricted literal and conceptual geography (you can only visit a certain number of places; you can only speak to a certain number of people, etc.), but there is also a certain value added for the player too: getting an intimate and detailed knowledge of place is itself, in its own way, fun. There is something almost territorial about it: the human need to get to know a certain area around you very well and force it to be familiar.

(Think of the last time you went to a new town or city, even if it was just a business trip for a few days, or whatever. What was the first thing you did? For me after dumping my bag in the hotel it's to walk about the neighbourhood and figure out what's what and where's where - to make it mine.)

This is why I like the idea of a location-based adventure or even campaign: a manor house, a cathedral and cloisters, a village, a palace, a castle, a tower and its grounds, and so on - an area which the PCs can really get their teeth into, and whose restricted geography facilitates that. (Of course, the key to any good location-based campaign is that the PCs are free to leave if they want to - but it's too interesting for that to happen.) A place which, through repetitive visits, the PCs get to know and understand in detail.

The Seclusium of Orphone should really have been a way of facilitating that sort of game - and does to a degree (I was surprised how well that book worked in practice to create a gameable location with a bit of work) - but I think there is space for something better and more expansive. Something which provides tools for coming up with restricted but detailed geographical spaces for a more small-scale and detailed type of game.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Paint Me A Picture

I have been reading a bit about The Arnolfini Portrait. I am not an art historian. But I get the impression that The Arnolfini Portrat is, to art history, a bit like what Hamlet is to English literature: the puzzle of what it actually means is, in a way, more interesting than the actual artifact itself.

The painting is of course fraught with symbolism and alternative readings, but what is probably more interesting is the idea that the painting actually symbolised something very tangible and, in fact, legal. Erwin Panofsky thought that the painting was itself an official record of the marriage Giovanni di Arnolfini and his wife, because Jan van Eyck was a notary as well as an artist, and makes such a big point of inserting himself into the painting as though witnessing the ceremony. This makes the painting a kind of unconventional and remarkable instantiation of a marriage contract. Linda Seidel, on the other hand, thought that the painting was almost a receipt for the dowry which Arnolfini's father-in-law paid (or was arranging to pay): the picture is an official record - a statement to the effect that "I have given this guy a heck of a lot of money and him and his family had better not weasel out of the arrangement if they know what's good for them. And look, this painting proves it."

Whether these interpretations are true or not doesn't matter: listen, in the 1430s in Bruges it was plausible that Italian merchant banking dynasties used phenomenally beautiful paintings for practical purposes in ways which to us seem entirely strange.

Let's make this game-able. Forget your 3000 copper pieces; art as treasure is much more interesting. But art in a D&D world doesn't have to be simply something aesthetically beautiful to steal/find and then sell. Art in a D&D world might mean all kinds of things.

Maybe in storm giant society, family history is recorded visually in decorations on big pottery jugs. A storm giant matriarch might do anything to recover one if lost (or might agree to anything if one was threatened with destruction).

Maybe for an ancient civilization, totems or idols were carved which, if interpreted correctly in the right sequence, show the direction to special locations. Maybe somebody would pay a lot of money for the missing idol in the sequence, or maybe the PCs come across the whole set.

Maybe for a certain cult of assassins, it is important for religious reasons to paint a picture of every victim in a certain symbolic setting to indicate why they were killed. If you come across one of these paintings you can possibly figure all of this out.

Or maybe the cult of assassins will only kill somebody if they are provided with a painting of that person in advance.

Or, to bring it back to Arnolfini: imagine you were a rich merchant banker and had given your son-in-law a huge lump sum of money to ensure your daughter was looked after until her death. You had this evidenced by the creation of a sumptuous painting. Now imagine it gets stolen or lost.

Monday 17 October 2016

Preliminary Thoughts on Mapping a Tree

Thinking about the Fixed World led me a while back to speculate that in a land where it was always daytime and always summer there would be plants the size of buildings - and trees the size of skyscrapers or even bigger. That led me to think about a megadungeon that is a single vast tree.

This morning I started thinking about how you might map a tree that is basically a country.

The above picture is a diagram of a tree which stands in my garden.

All the major branches and the trunk are interconnected, on a tree. Anybody can travel between them if they are capable of moving along those branches. But then once you get away from the major branches there are vastly complicated networks of smaller branches and twigs that it would be impossible to actually map.

It makes more sense, then, to divide the tree up into zones. Away from all the major branches radiate networks, which are the different zones marked A, B, C, D, and E. (F is a separate zone where there used to be a big branch, which fell off.)

The red arrows are an attempt to illustrate depth - if the arrow is pointing down it indicates that the branch sort of comes back towards the viewer and if the arrow is pointing up it indicates the branch sort of points away. No arrow indicates the branch is side-on.

Then within each zone there are 4 sectors. Where sectors overlap with each other (A2 and B3, C4 and B2, C2 and D1, C3 and D3, and D4 and E1) travel between zones is possible by going between leaves and twigs in the different zones.

Within each sector there is no need to map anything - you just need to make a note of what is in each sector. It is presumed that there are ways of travelling within sectors fairly straightforwardly, because people will have built up ropeways, spider-silk bridges and whatnot to allow interconnectedness. So if you are in A2 you may have to travel for a day to visit the wizard who makes his home on a certain twig in A3, but you can do it.

All zones and sectors connect with what is called the outer canopy, which is obviously the outer bit which is all leaves, buds, and the very thinnest narrowest twigs. Out there it is probably impossible to build anything because of wind and rain and because of the activities of giant forest animals. Adventurers willing to risk that danger can go out into the outer canopy and use it to traverse the tree if they desire (for example from E3 to A3), but doing so will incur a huge risk.

I have no idea whether this would work or not in a game.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Sperm Whale DMing

"I felt a bit like a sperm whale that breaks the surface of the water, makes a little splash, and lets you believe, makes you believe, or want to believe, that down there where it can't be seen, down there where it is neither seen nor monitored by anyone, it is following a deep, coherent, and premeditated trajectory." - M. Foucault, lecture of 7th January 1976

A lot of bloggers and RPG publishers (I include myself in this) are a little like how Foucault describes himself here. Every so often you rise to the surface of the ocean and make a little splash in the form of a blogpost that hints to the world at large that you are working on something unfathomable and yet epic and brilliant in scope. Yet this may well be entirely a mirage - a glimpse of something that is in fact disorganised, chaotic, and barely moving forward at all.

But that is not what I want to post about here. Rather, I want to discuss the importance of the DM as sperm whale.

Sperm whale DMing is, as frequently as is appropriate, hinting that there are things going on beneath the surface of the campaign setting that are seismic and important - so important, indeed, that the PCs operate in a completely different sphere and cannot yet get at them. There are plots. There are movements. There are strategies. There are wars being fought, struggles being played out, loves being lost, dreams being won, seasons turning on different time scales, geological movements, symphonies being written, eras changing, things happening. The low-level PCs only get the tiniest hints, the merest whispers, of all of this. It is only as they get more powerful, more influential, more noticeable, more knowledgeable, that they start to pull at the threads and unravel the veils and turn over the rocks and look behind the curtains. The DMs role is just, every now and then, to ensure that there is just a little splash on the surface to hint at what is going on in the ocean currents below.

The crucial point here is that it does not matter whether the DM is actually following deep, coherent and premeditated trajectories. It is nice and interesting for him if he is. But at the same time, you can build those trajectories in a decentralised and disaggregated fashion, from the belly up: you can drop hints and whisper rumours and scatter clues without the foggiest clue how they all link together or what they mean. What you have is time. Time to ruminate and time to see where and what the PCs dig. You can build those deep trajectories from what you hint at, rather than the other way around.

That is, what you are really doing as you drop the hints and whisper the rumours and scatter the clues is planting the seeds for what you are going to work with later. Some examples of things a DM might throw into a campaign without any idea of future pathways:

-A man in a cape who the PCs see every now and then in the distance when it is raining.
-Rumours of something called The Sapphire Tower - a building whose location nobody knows, as it always seems to change.
-The aftermath of an assassination of some important NPC in which the assassin has apparently just killed himself.

All these things might just occur to the DM off the top of his head, or appear, perhaps, as random table results. It may be a year later that the PCs enter the castle of a storm giant and the DM decides, wouldn't it be fun if the man in the cape was the storm giant's servant and he has been watching the PCs for some time? It may be two years later that the PCs finally find out that The Sapphire Tower only appears after a rainbow or on the 366th day of a leap year, and that it is connected to some arch mage NPC who they have heard about in the meantime since the rumour was first dropped. Or it might be 10 sessions later that they discover that the assassination was carried out by the thieves' guild they have been working for and the DM has finally figured out the reason why. And maybe it's 10 sessions after that when the DM figures out how all those strands are tied together and are related to something deeper yet.