Wednesday 30 November 2016

[Actual Play] Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Session 3

[Previous session report can be found here. I should briefly mention how I am dealing with having a rotating cast of PCs. Usually my games operate on a kind of implicit weird quantum space-time oddity: if a player is absent one week his PC is not there and never was. If he returns, his PC is there and always was. New PCs for new players, and replacement PCs for the dead, are generally introduced as quickly as possible if not immediately. However, since this is practically at the beginning of the campaign we just acted as though the new PC, Linga, had been there from the beginning, and didn't bother giving him an actual introduction.]

PCs present:

  • "Bash" (real name unknown), a Danish mystic, played by C
  • Raphael de Fonseca, a Jewish-Dutch scholar, played by M
  • Linga, a Malabar specialist, played by P

Here is what the PCs managed to map out in this session:

The goby fish left the PCs alone at the spot marked with the red [x] near chamber 25 on the map, which was a boggy area leading out into a sunlit realm of jungle. While the walls here were icy rock as elsewhere, a large open space of apparently natural equatorial forest stretched out before them. High above the canopy they could just make out areas of blue sky and sun.

The party knew they had to head East in order to meet the wise woman the goby fish had told them about, so they went more or less due East through the hot, dense forest. Eventually they reached another wall that was perpendicular to their advance, so they decided that to follow it South. This lead them to map out some of the contours of this big jungle "cavern". They found some tunnel entrances leading off it at various points, before eventually finding themselves back in the boggy area where they had begun. They retraced their steps East and this time followed the wall North, hugging it all the way, until eventually they discovered it curved back on itself and they were heading South once more.

It wasn't long before a stone-tipped spear flew out of the forest and hit the wall in front of them. Appearing as if from thin air, a number of reptilian humanoids emerged to warn them that they were entering hunting grounds. These humanoid things could not speak Dutch, or any other language that the PCs understood, but nonetheless when they spoke their odd chittering tongue the meaning was clear. 

The PCs attempted to explain they were looking for a woman, a concept which these lizard men did not understand very well; eventually they were satisfied with the description of an "egg layer" and a rough description of the difference between a man and woman. They thought that she might be found if the PCs headed North and then East. The PCs duly turned around, not wishing to fight, and the lizard men disappeared back into thin air, like Cheshire cats.

After travelling North for some time the PCs came across another wall and traced it East. Here, they discovered three alcoves. One of these contained a carved wooden snake, around 5' long, with seven stripes on its back; its mouth was open and it appeared hollow. The others contained wooden bas-reliefs of a man and woman respectively, with exaggerated genitalia. All of these wooden idols gave off warmth of some kind, but did not react to offerings; however, lighting a fire before them seemed to bestow an air of sanctity on Linga.

Between these alcoves was a very narrow tunnel which gave off the smell of the sea. Bravely, Bash volunteered to crawl inside and soon came across a large number of spiny red sea urchins which covered the ceiling and walls. Using his shield as a protector he slowly but surely forced his way through and managed to do so without being stung; eventually he emerged into a cave in which he could stand and which was full of yellow-blue urchins. These urchins gave off a strange, urgent susurrus which seemed to him to suggest he should touch them. Aware that they were likely poisonous but also reminded that he had been perfectly happy to lick poisonous toads in order to enter the crocodile's dreams, Bash decided to go along with the urchins. Touching them and being stung then allowed his brain to become chemically attuned to the urchins' hormonal communication method. The urchins revealed that they had been in their cave since time immemorial and were desperately hungry. They promised Bash that if he brought them living meat they would provide guidance to him about the woman he sought.

The gang decided to press on and continue following the wall. It curved around to the South and soon they found themselves coming to the end of the jungle: they were back in an oceanic zone, walking on a sandy sea floor and looking at the surface far above them. They stayed here pondering what to do for some time. They had realised by now that it seemed everything in the crocodile's dreams was somehow sentient. They had also realised that all of these sentient things seemed rivalrous. They did not want to kill anything or bring it to the urchins, because that might result in them making enemies. They were also increasingly dubious about their mission to help the goby against his hairy foes. Nonetheless, they decided that it might be desirable, if they could find something that was not sentient but alive, and take it to the urchins to see what guidance they could offer about the "wise woman".

Shortly after entering the oceanic zone they were confronted by four man-sized sharks. They beat a hasty retreat to the border between the oceanic and jungle zones [marked with a green squiggle on the map], assuming that the sharks would not be able to cross into the forested area. The sharks seemed about to attack, but Bash put on a show of bravado and aggression, waving his machete around and implying that trying to fight him would be a big mistake. This at least encouraged the sharks to parlay. 

In this conversation, the PCs were able to understand a bit more about the nature of this place. The sharks revealed that ever since "the ruler" had arrived, everything had changed: forest was mixed up with sea, but also all living things had become hunters. This is because "the ruler" enjoys hunting so much: his spirit had touched everything and the desire to hunt had pervaded all life there. 

The PCs did not want to fight the sharks, so they decided to try to ally with them in finding food for the urchins, and asked what the most delicious thing was that lived in the sea. The sharks without hesitation said that it was a giant clam which lived nearby. The PCs hatched upon a plan: they would open the clam and give it to the sharks. In return, the three strongest sharks would give the PCs the weakest one, which they could then take to the sea urchins. The sharks, being sharks, and each thinking of him- or herself as the strongest, agreed to this.

The sharks led the PCs to a nearby chamber in which, sure enough, lay a giant clam. The PCs informed the clam that they were its doom: they were going to drag it away to be eaten. Bargaining for its life, it offered them a safe sanctuary in which to stay - no sea creature could enter its lair and cause harm, nor on its guests. If the PCs let it live, it would provide them a safe place in perpetuity. Linga agreed to this and got given a pearl into the bargain (the removal of which was a great relief to the clam). But he was quickly persuaded to go back on his word: Bash and Raphael both reasoned that this "sanctuary" was useless as coming and going would involve traversing a shark-infested sea each time. The clam wailed and moaned and complained, but was dragged away in short order. The PCs took it to the very boundary of the jungle and ocean zones, so that they could open it up, give it to the sharks, take their weakest member, and escape into the trees if it all went awry.

The sharks were good to their and bullied the weakest of their number out of the sea area to be caught in a net by the party. Raphael and Linga then hacked open the giant clam and gave the meat to the sharks, while Bash dragged away the still-living captive shark to give it to the urchins before it ran out of air.

The session ended with the sea urchins slowly eating the shark alive while telling Bash the following information:

1. The wise woman is actually the Aunt of "the ruler", and she lives on an island between two rivers. On no account must a visitor touch the water from either of those rivers with any part of his body, because if he does so, his essence will be drained away and dissipated and he will simply become part of the crocodile's dreams.

2. The Aunt will react favourably to anybody who professes to know her nephew, "the ruler", by name. And his name is Sese-Mahuru-Bau.

Monday 28 November 2016

Big Spaces in Little Spaces

Parts of one of the different sub-settings within Behind Gently Smiling Jaws involve areas which appear small on the map but which are very large. So a chamber which appears to be 100 yards across on the dungeon map could actually be 100 miles across. If the PCs move around the walls the chamber has its "ordinary" map-based circumference. But if the PCs move across it, it might take them hours or days to do so, and it might contain entire countries.

I have been thinking about this off and on for a while - not just for this game but also because I nurture ambitions of one day running a Mythago Wood campaign. (The eponymous wood looks like an ordinary smallish English wood but is actually vast - potentially infinitely big - once you get inside it.) It would look a bit like this:

The players mosey on down the corridor in the ordinary way. If they move around the walls of the chamber they find its circumference what it appears to be on the map (say, 300 yards-ish, because the chamber looks about 100 yards in diameter on the map's scale) but if they were to move across it they would be in, basically, a hexmap.

I feel as though this ought to be more difficult than it appears. The main thing to keep track of is just what hex the players enter. (The hexes would need to be numbered in reality of course.) They would then move around the hexes as though in a hex map, say on a 1-mile per hex basis. Once they got to the edge of the hex map, they would find the cavern wall wherever they emerged.

FLY, MY PRETTIES. Tell me whether there is anything about this concept that would make things particularly difficult to use in actual play.

Friday 25 November 2016

Iron Rations

The word "rations" gets bandied about quite a lot in D&D. A week's rations. Iron rations.

Here's an extract from The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's first hand re-telling of Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. The book contains an account of Cherry-Garrard's "winter journey", with two companions, to try to discover a rookery of emperor penguins and bring back some of their eggs. This was a 6-week trip through near total darkness, in temperatures between -40 and -60 degrees centigrade, carrying two heavy sledges. It is possibly one of the most riveting passages ever written in the English language about the hardships of wilderness travel.

But it also contains plenty of interesting information about things like, well, rations. Here's what the three men arranged during the journey:

By taking individually different quantities of biscuit, pemmican and butter we were able roughly to test the proportions of proteids, fats and carbohydrates wanted by the human body under such extreme circumstances. Bill was all for fat, starting with 8 oz. butter, 12 oz. pemmican and only 12 oz. biscuit a day. Bowers told me he was going for proteids, 16 oz. pemmican and 16 oz. biscuit, and suggested I should go the whole hog on carbohydrates. I did not like this, since I knew I should want more fat, but the rations were to be altered as necessary during the journey, so there was no harm in trying. So I started with 20 oz. of biscuit and 12 oz. of pemmican a day. 
Bowers was all right (this was usual with him), but he did not eat all his extra pemmican. Bill could not eat all his extra butter, but was satisfied. I got hungry, certainly got more frost-bitten than the others, and wanted more fat. I also go heartburn. However, before taking more fat I increased my biscuits to 24 oz., but this did not satisfy me; I wanted fat. Bill and I now took the same diet, he giving me 4 oz. of butter which he could not eat, and I giving him 4 oz. of biscuit which did not satisfy my wants. We both therefore had 12 oz. pemmican, 16 oz. biscuit and 4 oz. butter a day, but we did not always finish our butter. This is an extremely good ration, and we had enough to eat during most of this journey. We certainly could not have faced the conditions without.

(Pemmican is mostly meat with fruit and berries. The "biscuits" used appear to have been high-energy sources of carbohydrate as Cherry-Garrard mentions sugar and oats a lot, but apparently the recipe was a trade secret and isn't disclosed.) So 12 oz. of meat and berries, 16 oz. of what one must envisage as a kind of flapjack, and 4 oz. of butter was enough to live on per day travelling through the Antarctic during winter carrying heavy sledges. That's around 350 grams / 450 grams / 120 grams, give or take, for metric fans. In other words, call it something in the region of a kilogram of weight per day.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Thinking Beyond Samurai: the Ryukyuan Paladin

An old theme on the blog is doing different things with Japanese or pseudo-Japanese settings: getting away from samurai and ninja and all that. 

Here's a continuation of a previous post from earlier this year. Have a look at this conditioning video. Uechi-ryu is one of the traditional Okinawan karate styles, and arguably is one of the "purest" in lineage to the Chinese Southern kung-fu origins of modern karate. All the Okinawan schools practice conditioning of the hands and forearms to make them extremely tough and strong. 

It gave me an idea for a character concept: the Ryukyuan paladin. This is a holy warrior who is specialised in defeating the undead: he conditions his fists until they are harder than stone, allowing him to smash the skeletal and brittle bodies of the evil dead with the sheer force of his punches. He would use the scaling damage of the monk, but when fighting against undead enemies would do maximum damage with each hit - ignoring requirements to  In return, he sacrifices the ability to cast spells and heal with his hands. 

Friday 18 November 2016

Do RPGs Build Character?

I am a big believer in building character. I think that there is great virtue in forcing yourself to become accomplished at things. There are certain things in life - learning another language; learning how to cook or make pottery or fight; familiarizing yourself with canonical works of literature and philosophy, and so on - which are important to do not just because they are good and useful in their own right, but also because they teach you focus and self-discipline and concentration and mental or physical toughness and persistence and all other kinds of things which your grandfather probably deemed important.

It is good to be the type of person who can say: If I am set a difficult task, I can force myself to do it because I have done even more difficult things before, by choice, so fuck you.

How do RPGs feature in this? What does being a DM teach you? If you were a grandfather or grandmother, what would you say to an 11 year old as you sat there wagging your finger at him and explaining the virtues bestowed upon somebody who regularly DMs a campaign?

Discipline. You learn the value of spending time working hard on doing things which may not even have any sort of pay-off (many of the maps and other things you create will not end up being used at all), and you will often receive barely any thanks for your effort if at all.

Preparation. You will have to be ready for each session. You will have to have prepared and planned materials, of course, but you will also have to learn how to mentally prepare yourself to be on top of your game. This is more difficult than it sounds.

Thoughtfulness and consideration. You will have to think about other people - what they might enjoy, what they might not. You will have to take account of whether other people are enjoying themselves during each session.

Confidence. You will have to be in charge, the centre of attention, the one who steps into the breach, the one who guides and leads when guidance and leadership are necessary.

Decisiveness. You will have to make decisions. There will be many times during a game where you will be called upon to make a decision. You won't be satisfied with the options available to you, because you have been taken by surprise by events. But you will have to decide anyway.

RPGs are fun, but fun things can also improve you. How else does playing RPGs make people better?

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Nouns in the Yellow City Trade Tongue: Extract from the Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl

From The Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl, p. 378:

"The Yellow City is a city of many languages but the visitor is immediately struck by the fact that all of the populace shift with great facility to their 'Trade Tongue' whenever they are speaking to one outside their immediate circle.

"I asked many scholars about the origin of this 'Trade Tongue' and was told that it had been created by of all things a dwarfish sorcerer, Chinzin, who was a member of the court of an ancient emperor of the city. (There is nowadays, of course, no emperor, and has not been for thousands of years.) This dwarf was tasked with creating a language which could be spoken by both human and slug-man mouths alike, in order that commands could be issued and trades carried out between the two species without the slug-man masters suffering the indignities of being unable to pronounce certain words - it being known that the slug-man mouth is much less dextrous than that of the human.

"It is for this reason that, despite it being in common use for thousands of years at least, the Yellow City Trade Tongue has apparently changed little in pronunciation or grammatical rules since the earliest of Chinzin's Grammars

"The most noticeable characteristic of the 'Trade Tongue' is that it is a language which disdains nouns and adjectives. It is said that the dwarfish languages with which Chinzin was familiar are composed entirely of verbs, so that if one were to refer to a tree, for example, one would express something akin, mutatis mutandis, to one speaking our language making the expression: 'growing, greening, talling'.

"Whether or not this be true, the 'Trade Tongue' functions largely on the basis of verbs. Chinzin's genius, if it can be described as such, was what to linguistic scholars in the Yellow City became known as the Great Gerund Moment. The 'Trade Tongue' is a language comprising entirely verbs, except when those verbs are transformed into nouns through the use of special 'gerund classifiers' as follows.

"Consider the word in the 'Trade Tongue' for 'fish'. It is omifamofö.

This can be broken down into constituent parts thusly:

omi (which is the infinitive of the verb, 'to swim'), famo (which is the infinitive of the verb, 'to breathe water'), and then a particular gerund classifier,  (which might be said to be the equivalent of our "-ing thing"). Hence, omifamofö, or 'swim breathe-water -ing thing'.

"To which the perceptive reader will ask two questions: namely, what is the origin of this strange 'gerund classifier' and the rules governing its use; and does this not result in nouns which are of extreme and unusable length?

"Chinzin developed not one gerund classifier but 14. This was in accordance with the prevailing epistemological philosophy of the time, which held that all things could be classified into 14 archetypes. Hence, 'nouns' in the Yellow City Trade Tongue take a separate gerund classifier according to what archetype they fit.

"Over time, of course, the vision of perfection from which Chinzin was drawing proved too restrictive for the messy and chaotic nature of living things, and over time gerund classifications have become somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, the Yellow City Trade Tongue can still be said to have 14 noun classes based on the following schema. The schema lists Chinzin's classification and the comments in parenthesis elaborate on the modern usage.

(a) things that belong to the Emperor (there is nowadays no "emperor" so this in general classifies things associated with the slug man caste) wi
(b) embalmed things (includes things that are artificially constructed or altered)
(c) those that are trained (includes children, agricultural animals, and so on) öha
(d) suckling pigs (this includes most mammals) ma
(e) mermaids (includes fish and other scaly things, and also hybrids)
(f) fabulous ones (includes abstract concepts or things known not to actually exist) bo
(g) stray dogs (includes things associated with low-status castes) iwo
(h) those that are included in the present classification (only used for the noun "thing" itself) ȍwȉ
(i) those that tremble as if they are mad (includes things which are amorphous and cannot be fixed, such as clouds) pi
(j) innumerable ones (includes things found in clumps or other large gatherings) p'o
(k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush (includes things artistically created) ahi
(l) others (a miscellaneous category - usually whatever is not currently classified or where the speaker does not know what class something belongs in) xhu
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase (includes things that change form or location) wu
(n) those that look like flies from a long way off (includes insects, and other tiny things)

"Hence the word for 'fish', omifamofö, takes the gerund classifier for mermaids, or . This may be contrasted with another word, for 'peas', or fuwafap'o (from fuwa, the infinitive for "to be green", fa for the infinitive for "to be edible", and p'o, the gerund classifier for things that are innumerable or found in clumps.

"At some point there may be required second-order agglutination as in: p'abahuwupixȁ, the word for a cup or bowl. Viz: p'aba (infinitive for 'to contain'), huwu (infinitive for 'to be liquid'), pi (gerund classifier for amorphous things, such as liquids), xȁ (gerund classifier for embalmed or constructed things). Similarly, rather than having adjectives, nouns are modified through the use of particles comprised of the stem of verbs. Thus, omifamoȕfö, or 'big fish' (formed by inserting the stem of the verb ȕmȕ, 'to be big', or ȕ, before the gerund classifier).

"The question remains: does this not result in unwieldy and lengthy nouns which make communication lengthy and difficult? The answer is that in ordinary circumstances, users of the Yellow City Trade Tongue are extremely aware of context, more so perhaps than any other peoples using any other oral form of communication. Thus, when from context the meaning is clear, it is quite natural and normal for a person to refer simply to a fish as a  (for example, when there is a fish nearby, or when the topic of fish has already been raised in the conversation). In another circumstance, he may use the word to refer to another thing which is classified with mermaids, such as a lizard, in abbreviation, where the context is clear. 

"Likewise, when sitting down for a meal, a person will not ask to be passed a p'abahuwupixȁ, but simply a pixȁ."

[With thanks to Borges and The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.]

Monday 14 November 2016

[Actual Play] Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Session 2

[Last week I ran the first session of a "Behind Gently Smiling Jaws" playtest. I didn't do a write-up, but will from this one onwards. In the previous session, our brave adventurers had come from various places around the world to Port Keizerin Elisabeth, a port founded by the Dutch East India Company in a land they had called Paradijs Kolonie. They were motivated by one purpose: to investigate a legend they had heard, that somewhere in the jungle was a village, known as "the guarded village", which was guarded by a giant crocodile whose dreams could somehow be entered.

After hiring a local called Yosik to act as their guide, they paid for passage towards the village on the trading boat of a native, Fat Folo, who had set himself up as a middle man of sorts for trade between the Dutch and the locals. Set ashore upstream from Port Keizerin Elisabeth not far from the guarded village, they made their way there and discovered that the village sat by a large lake.]

PCs present:

  • Wilhelm Becker, an elderly German scholar, played by R
  • Raphael de Fonseca, a Jewish-Dutch scholar, played by M
  • "Bash" (real name unknown), a Danish mystic, played by C
The session began with the travelers standing on the shore of the Guarded Lake, confronted by a group of warriors daubed in white paint and bristling with blow guns, clubs, spears and so forth, in a large war canoe. The warriors, while hostile in appearance, seemed amused at the sight of these strange foreigners, and allowed them to get into the canoe to be taken to their village, which lay on the other side of the lake.

In the canoe Wilhelm (who could speak some of the local dialect) asked the locals some questions about their village, the legend of the crocodile, and how it was that the dreams of this beast could be entered by outsiders. It was revealed that a shamaness at the village knew the secret of how to enter the creature's dreams, and that for generations this knowledge had been passed down from mother to daughter to daughter again following the same lineage. It also turned out that nobody, as far as anybody knew, had ever gone into the crocodile's dreams and come out again. Those who entered never returned. The men also told Wilhelm that anybody was permitted to enter the crocodile's dreams, provided that they were earnestly seeking something and that they did not tell any lies.

Arriving at the village on the opposite shore the visitors were welcomed by all the villagers - about 200 people, including a vast gang of children, the chief, and also a fellow white European, who introduced himself as Dennis, an explorer in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. On learning that they had come to investigate the legend of the dreaming crocodile, Dennis let it be known that he considered the story to be a myth or hoax. But he was impressed by a display of power from Bash, who demonstrated that he was able to cure wounds through channeling mystical energies. Dennis told him that he would like to take him to Batavia to meet the Governor there, as a curiosity of nature, but Bash refused, saying he was not a curio to be displayed to amuse the wealthy.

The PCs then made their way to the shameness's hut, which stood apart from the others on wooden stilts, around 20 yards high. They climbed up and discovered a single, small room, where a woman, probably in her 30s, sat naked and cross-legged. On each wall there was depicted an icon of a jungle beast: a tree kangaroo, a quoll, a parrot, and a cassowary. The shamaness asked each of the PCs why they wished to enter the crocodile's dreams. Wilhelm gave the answer that he was now old, and had researched many things but wished to travel on one last great exploratory journey. Raphael revealed that he was searching for a lost tribe of Israelites he believed lived there. And Bash revealed that he had clearly been blessed with some kind of mystical power, but he did not know where it came from or who had bestowed it on him, and he wished to find out.

Satisfied with these answers and the honesty of the PCs, the shamaness agreed to perform the ritual to allow them to enter the crocodile's dreams. Before doing so, the PCs naturally asked some questions and received answers to them. First, they were told that natives of the village never entered her hut, or the crocodile's dreams, because they believed that the dream world was only to be accessed after death, and they did not wish to foreshadow what might happen after they entered the afterlife. Second, they were told that normally when a person entered the dream world, their spirit left their body behind. Sooner or later, the body that had been left behind would die, at which point the shamaness would throw it out of the hut and the villagers would feed it to the crocodile in the lake. This had happened to all travelers who journeyed to the crocodile's dreams (she did not know what happened to their spirits), apart from seven - the "seven who went before" - all of whom had found some way to transport not just their spirit but also their physical being into the dreaming. But they had all done this long, long ago - long before the shamaness was born. Finally, Raphael was told that one of these Seven, known as Pape Jan, might be an ally to him; likewise, one known as Xu Fu might be of assistance to Bash.

She also told the PCs that they must return the next day bringing with them as many frogs as they could from the lake.

This was achieved mainly through Bash bribing the local children with moonshine to catch frogs for them. Soon enough the party had well over a dozen frogs on their hands - Raphael and Wilhelm were able to gather some others. While this was going on, they caught a glimpse of the crocodile itself - a huge head at least 5 metres in length which emerged partially from the water for a moment before disappearing back below.

The next morning the PCs turned up back that the shamaness's hut and the ritual began. Each of the PCs licked the back of a number of frogs and soon enough each of them had fixated on one of the animal pictograms on the walls of the hut: these animals seemed to be communicating knowledge to them from the spirit realm. Wilhelm, whose vision fixed on the cassowary, began to dwell on the fact that he had come to believe in magic through handling a face mask from an obscure tribe which had seemed imbued with magical energy. The cassowary told him that, indeed, the face mask had been imbued with such energy and that, moreover, he would one day discover a mask which would give him such power that he would become a demigod.

Bash, who had fixated on the quoll, recalled the first time that he had used his mystical powers to revenge himself against childhood bullies. The quoll foresaw that one day in his future Bash would had dominion over many people and would have the authority to send huge numbers of men to their deaths at his own command.

Raphael, who meditated on the parrot, remembered legends of golems, things formed from clay and imbued with life to protect the persecuted Jewish people. The parrot predicted that Raphael would one day discover himself how to forge living things from clay.

Gradually it dawned on the three PCs that they were no longer looking at the animal pictograms but were each looking at a single reptilian eye that was growing inexorably, slowly but terribly larger. It may have been hours, days, weeks, months or years, but over an eon of time this eye was becoming big enough to be the size of a world. And each of them was falling into this world from a vast and distant height.

And then they woke up somewhere very cold: a dim tunnel, forged of ice and rock. They had their possessions on them, and noticed that the tunnel forked ahead of them, left and right. From the left there came a golden glow. From the right, a more unearthly, blue light. They decided to investigate the right, because they could also hear a strange scraping or digging sound coming from that direction.

After some exploration they eventually came across a series of caverns. These caverns had a strange physical character. They seemed filled with air. But high up in the "ceiling" was what could only have been the surface of the sea, and the sunny sky above it. It was as if the caverns were filled with the ocean, and yet the human explorers could walk in them and breathe as though they were on solid land.

In one of these chambers the PCs saw a huge shrimp, at least 8 feet long. This was the source of the digging - it was scrabbling through gravel, digging out thick green algae to eat. It did not notice them, so they explored a neighbouring chamber where they were confronted by a huge fish - of a similar size to the shrimp - which looked like a colourful goby or blenny. This fish could swim and float freely in the "air" as though it were water, and proved friendly, if elusive. It revealed that it was in fact married to the shrimp - the shrimp was his wife - and that she was blind and deaf but extremely dangerous if touched. The goby's main aim was to cajole the PCs into aiding it "smite" its enemies, a group of dirty, hairy creatures which lived nearby and which were threatening him and his wife.

The PCs were unwilling to involve themselves in a conflict unnecessarily, but after a fairly long conversation a deal was struck. The goby agreed that it would help the PCs find a woman (what the fish referred to as a "smooth but also dirty-haired one like you") who knew about writing and magic and things of that nature. If this proved fruitful the PCs would help smite the goby's enemies, and the goby would then reveal the location of a magical mask for Wilhelm.

While this conversation was going on, Bash performed an experiment by climbing the walls of the cavern and then, finally, shooting an arrow tied to a string up to the "ceiling". When the arrow penetrated the water line, it made a splashing sound and, when tugged back down, it was wet. It was as though when moving around these chambers the PCs were subject to their own physical laws, even though they were ostensibly under water.

The fish also revealed some more information about the nature of these "lands", as it called them. Apparently once he and his wife had lived peacefully in the sea, but then an outsider had come and he had radically changed the nature of things, physically and philosophically. Since this outsider had come, he had turned almost everything there into a hunter and a fighter, and he had also reformed its geography. The fish also revealed that any outsider who entered these "lands" would eventually also change its character in some way, simply by being there.

The session ended with the fish leading the PCs to a much larger chamber nearby which, rather than appearing to be under the sea, was actually filled with jungle and which was open to an apparently sunny sky...

[This is the map of this area of the crocodile's dreams as far as the PCs have explored it. Room 28 is where the fish's wife was eating algae. Room 26 is where the PCs encountered the fish. Room 25 is the new jungle cavern. The fish's enemies are apparently in the direction of the blue arrow pointing up.]

Friday 11 November 2016

The City Standing Like a Candle in the Night

I got lots of great comments under my recent blog post describing a world in which the day and night both last 100 years. I have been meaning to collate some of the ideas I especially liked, so here are some of them:

1) The climate would be changing all the time. This seems a simple observation, but this would be a world of constant climatic churn, because weather patterns would always be shifting. The landscape in a certain spot could change quite noticeably even over the course of a decade.

2) Human civilizations would be largely migratory over the course of the day, perhaps even in the form of moving caravan-cities, but this would bring about quite interesting effects. First, there may be oceans, which would have to be sailed across on annual migrations.

Second, there would be "bottlenecks" formed by mountains, deserts and so forth. In such places there might be permanent settlements effectively charging tolls to pass - maybe operated by a different race equally capable of living in the day and the night (maybe run by dwarves or gnomes or something). These bottlenecks with permanent settlements would also get rich from trade.

Third, migrating peoples would follow regular pathways. While only the very oldest people might remember, it would be part of oral (or written) history. This would mean that people would bury or otherwise hide caches of supplies in regular spots to pick up 100 years later on the next passage. Some of these regular pathways might cut across the poles because that would be a shorter route.

Fourth, migration might go in reverse. A viable tactic for a civilization could be to stay put for 100 years until the night arrives, and then up sticks and travel across the night, circumnavigating the world, to find the day again as it advances from the other direction. This would be very dangerous because the night is full of dangers, but might also have big benefits once you were back in the day time. Nomadic peoples might also do this if there was a natural barrier - they might go from East to West over the course of the day until they come up against a wall of mountains or an ocean, and then wait there until night to fall, before quickly making a dash across the night back to day time on the other side.

Fifth, following on from that, some people might be cannibalistic or semi-cannibalistic. During the day they travel from East to West, and then turn around and go back across the night, living off the meat of designated tribe members on that journey.

Sixth, on the oceans there would be water-going people who would be, to some extent, much freer - but who would be in real difficulties in the ended up accidentally getting iced-in if they were in the wrong place at night.

3) Another tactic for civilizations may simply be to stay put. During the day, vast food stores could be gathered and huge underground networks dug to store it all. Then during the night everybody would move below the surface to effectively hibernate.

These underground stores would be easy targets for more nomadic types, especially as night approached. They would have to be very carefully defended and would make a great excuse for creating dungeons for PCs to explore (especially where for mysterious circumstances the owners have left, or have all been killed?).

The digger-types would be obsessed with record keeping and cycles. A nice tweak was the idea that, in this world, there might be regular changes in wind direction associated with different phases of the day and night. Digger-types might have special minarets built above their cities and angled specially to make sounds or vibrations when the wind changed around the time of morning.

And some of the more extreme diggers may abandon surface living entirely and descend further and further below...

4) There is also, of course, MAGIC. Perhaps some particularly advanced societies would have magical means of surviving the night (or day) - or maybe even travelling around in floating cities.

Putting this all together, I having been thinking today about a campaign setting taking place in The City Standing Like a Candle in the Night - a walled fortress inhabited by a great and advanced civilizations able to magically last the night. The PCs would begin there, at the very bottom rung of the social order, early in the night - just a year or two in. Surrounding them would be all kinds of opportunities for adventure. Intrigue in the City itself. Raiding nearby "digger-type" settlements with huge underground caches of valuables (perhaps one of which is abandoned and forms, essentially, a megadungeon, with many of the defences still intact). Stealing from dwarf or gnome toll-takers at a nearby migratory choke-point. Searching for caches left by migratory peoples. Tangling with orcs and other night creatures. Searching for hermits or elder beings who do not move with the regular cycles? Trying to track an infamous Laputa-like floating castle?

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Werewolf: The Misanthrope and Princess Mononoke

About six months ago I made the observation that Werewolf: the Apocalypse was basically a game about terrorism:

Werewolf's rules are terrible, but I've always thought that under its surface it has (interestingly but in a somewhat cowardly implicit fashion) suggested something that very few RPGs ever have: the PCs are terrorists. They have an aim in mind and that is to actively and aggressively defend the natural world from exploitation. And if that involves violence, so be it. This creates a sandbox game with a difference. Rather than seeking fame and fortune, the PCs are acting to preserve - searching out threats to a certain natural habitat and eliminating them with extreme prejudice. They are the white blood cells of gaia.

This appeals deeply to the one-time Green Party activist and wannabe zoologist in me. Last night, for instance, I watched a documentary about the slow loris and its disappearance from Java because human beings are desperate to keep them as pets and can't just leave the poor things along in their forests. As if that wasn't enough, the creatures' teeth are almost invariably tugged out with pliers to prevent them biting once they've been brought into captivity. Watching that whole sorry spectacle - an entire species being removed from the wild and made subject to all kinds of awful indignities for the sin of being cute - it struck me that the slow loris could do with having a werewolf or two around to even things up a bit.

But real life is complicated and I think one of the interesting things to explore in that sort of campaign is the fact that progress doesn't and won't stop. That was another theme in W:tA which I think perhaps came through a little better - the idea that however much the garou might kick up a fuss, industry and technology (what I think - my memory gets hazy - was referred to as the Weaver?) will not go away but will inexorably proliferate and advance. This was mirrored in the obsession which White Wolf seemed to have in those days with the motif of Native Americans trying Canute-like to resist an unstoppable tide of cultural and actual colonialism.

(Thinking about it, there is a kind of weird genealogy that can be traced from Tolkien's anti-industrialism, through the environmentalist movement via Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, to W:tA's heady mix of Native American-worship, environmentalism, suspicion of modernity, fantasy literature, and impending doom. But maybe that's another blog post.)

In other words, the pressure to make one's peace with industrial advancement and attempt to reach some sort of settlement with it was just as strong a theme in Werewolf as that of the nobility of futile resistance. In its own small way, I think that made Werewolf: the Apocalypse quite thought-provoking as RPGs go. While White Wolf games are all so terribly teenage, they ought to be lauded for at least having a stab at being "about something".

These themes are also present in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki's best work. What is so brilliant about that film is the way it refuses to take sides - everybody in it is acting for understandable reasons. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to take the route of going for a happy ending in which the natural wilderness is returned to its pristine state, but that wouldn't be realistic or fair to the human beings who are impoverished and need to use natural resources to survive and prosper. Instead, the film dwells on the fact that humans and the natural world need give and take. I think that is a very mature message to bring across in what is ostensibly a children's film.

So there is a lot to Werewolf: the Apocalypse. All it needs is better rules.

Monday 7 November 2016

The Personification of Death

I saw Meet Joe Black last night. This is what happens when you stay at home with some beers and a Chinese and cycle back through everything you've Sky-plussed over the last three years. At some point, either the missus or I had apparently recorded Meet Joe Black to watch it at a later date.

It's a curate's egg of a film. There were elements of it that were stunningly well done: the scene in which Death makes his first physical appearance was particularly good - spooky but very understated. It was also very well-written and well-acted in the main; I felt like it was a bit of a throw-back to an era in which screenwriters actually wrote good scripts for grownups and actors weren't just there to emote in front of green screens. 

It's also quite refreshing to see a film-maker have a decent stab at a concept (Death comes to visit and falls in love) which seems on its face to be unflilmable. 

And yet Brad Pitt, an actor who I despise, delivers a performance which is a deep, black pit of ill-judgement that comes very close to pulling the entire film into disaster, like somebody constantly tugging at a tablecloth on a table covered in very expensive crockery, dragging it all closer and closer to the edge. You can almost see Anthony Hopkins suppressing the urge to slap him in some scenes. (Pitt almost pulled a similar trick in 12 Years A Slave but was thankfully restricted to just one scene in that.) The scenes which involve him speaking in a Jamaican patois, or is it an Irish lilt? are snigger-inducingly terrible. Genuinely some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid. And his personification of Death, it has to be said, doesn't quite make sense: would Death really have never heard the expression "Death and taxes"? Would Death really not know what a doctor does at a hospital? Would Death really not know how to hold a conversation?

In any event, though, it got me thinking about the personification of Death. It's a common motif in legends around the world and also in fairy tales and fables, but not one that I've ever seen appear in an RPG (unless you want to count Wraith: The Oblivion, or my own [WARNING: PLUG ALERT] "Black Dream of the Dying" in Issue #1 of The Peridot, available from all good online RPG PDF stores). 

What would it mean to D&D-ize Death? You couldn't simply have Death appearing at random to take people away. (I suppose you could, but it would be a bit of a 'fuck you' to the players.) Nor could you have him appearing as a monster who can be fought, because that's ridiculous. 

Death probably works best as a source of plot threads: a figure who appears from time to time when a PC dies and offers a bargain - to allow the PC to live in return for fulfilling some sort of geas. But I also wonder if there might be some mileage in using Death (sparingly) as an early warning system if the players are going to do something, or go somewhere, where there is a very high risk of death through no fault of their own.

Let me make clear: I am a big fan of consequences, and PC death. I don't believe in fudging or letting people off the hook. But there are always (rare) circumstances in a genuine sandbox or dungeon where PCs face near-certain death by sheer fluke or by blundering into a situation where death is extremely likely because you, the DM, have accidentally constructed it to be so. Could the figure of Death be played as a joker card in those circumstances? A way for the DM to admit to himself that, oops, what I just did, or what I planned, is actually genuinely not fair and the players need a warning? A dark figure in a cloak with a scythe glimpsed in the distance or disappearing round a corner, to signal obliquely to the players (if they are quick on the uptake) that what they are about to do might have dire consequences? 

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil and Explaining Horror

I went to see Ouija: Origin of Evil the other night (there was nothing else at that time and we couldn't be bothered waiting).

It was rubbish. An enjoyable and fairly tight set-up in the first two Acts (interesting 1960s backdrop, likable leads, vague hints at having something meaningful to say about death and grieving) was completely ruined by a very silly final Act which came out all guns blazing, complete with naff CGI and Exorcist rip-offs - the only rule appearing to be that if the possibility presents itself to try to make the girls in the audience scream then you should definitely do it.

I am going to spoil the film very slightly, but only very slightly, now, in the interests of making a wider point. If you are going to see it, skip the next paragraph. 

The film's major failing (apart from losing its nerve towards the end and basically abandoning all sense of narrative coherence and consistency in order to set things up for a sequel) seemed to me to be that the whole thing was explained: the reason for the haunting, the nature of the spirits doing it, their back story, and so forth. (As is so often the case, it was blah blah Nazism-related - wasn't that already old when Carrion Comfort came out?) Everything was made clear and mystery shattered.

This happens a lot in horror - the need to provide reasons. Probably the most egregious example for me is the way Thomas Harris was forced into developing a backstory for Hannibal Lecter (Nazism again), who was so effective a villain in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs because he was simply inscrutably evil - almost like the devil in human form. There was no reason for it except that he was evil for evil's sake. There seemed something especially compelling about that - somebody who was perfectly sane and yet chose to be bad - so the explanatory backstory was particularly ill-judged.

It goes without saying that part of the reason why Lovecraft is so important is that he (sometimes - this gets overblown) eschewed explanations. Explanations render horror knowable and as soon as one gains knowledge of something the fear of it diminishes.

Put another way - the last thing a horror writer should be telling you about is the "origin of evil". No: what is of interest is the END PRODUCT OF EVIL. Cthulhu being traumatized by Nazis so that he becomes evil is not scary. Cthulhu coming to get you and you don't even know why: that is scary.