Tuesday 12 December 2017

Audience Participation: A Table Without a Title

I often send little notes to myself by text message as a kind of aide memoire, which would work a treat if I ever actually looked at them, but I always forget.

I was looking over the big list of text messages in this dialogue earlier on today. A lot of them are notes on reading which are now altogether mysterious to me ("p. 36 - 'To bring to light the conditions that had to be met for it to be possible to hold a discourse...that can be true or false according to the rules of law'"; "Chapter 6 - Curate's egg"); some of them are presumably things I saw in a bookshop and noted down to investigate later ("You are not a gadget - Lanier. The internet is not the answer - Keen."); some are more obvious ("Nappy wipes, milk, strawberries, orange juice, dinner"); some of them are notes lost in time and untethered to context ("Also Hayek and the common law"). One is I think the beginning of a novel idea: "The main character awakes from a dream and wonders whether it was a dream or a memory".

But plenty of them are for gaming. Here's one: "1 Lizard man, 2 Parrot man, 3 Human hunter, 4 Naked ape, 5 Marine iguana man, 6 Penguin thing".

Nothing else. No other related messages I can find. No associated memory.

So have at it. Do your worst. What it this a table of random results for?

Friday 8 December 2017

Would You, Could You, on a Train?: Linear Dungeons

A linear dungeon is one in which there are, deliberately, no or very few options for lateral movement. The PCs either go forwards or backwards. 

One example would be a mile-high tower or skyscraper which the PCs ascend or descend. Each floor is a small level with a couple of rooms or, in the most high-concept version, a single room only. Instead of 10 dungeon levels each with an average of 30 or so chambers, you get 100 levels each with an average of three or so chambers - or 300 levels each with one chamber. 

Another would be an abandoned oil rig or mine shaft with the PCs simply going down, down, down, down, a very long and narrow hole. Periodically there are ledges where they get a chance to rest and fight ghost worms, sverfneblin, insane servitors, etc. 

A third idea is a train. Imagine a train made up of many carriages travelling through, say, the quasi-elemental plane of radiance on a vastly long track between two very distant places. You can't get out of the train because you will be blinded instantly. All you can do is move up and down the train, carriage by carriage. And in each one there is a different passenger. 

I find the possibilities of the long, narrow 'dungeon' intriguing. If the 'dungeon' is just train carriages or small floors of single/few rooms one after another, then you (of course) get to take advantage of a pattern. The DM can use, essentially, the same map over and over, with relatively minor changes. He just has to concentrate on content. The PCs, at the same time, also get used to the same patterns, so they can both forecast to a certain degree how things are going to look from level to level, but also be surprised when the DM throws them an occasional curve ball by mixing things up. 

The semi-linear dungeon is one which looks linear but where the PCs are able to advance (or retreat) in leaps and bounds by temporarily going outside it. Instead of descending the mile-high skyscraper floor by floor, sometimes they open a window and abseil down ten floors. Instead of moving carriage to carriage on the train, sometimes the PCs strap blindfolds over their eyes and try to clamber onto the roof and of the car they are in to make their way forward or backwards more expeditiously, and so on. 

Thursday 7 December 2017

War as a Globalising Force

Google "war and globalisation" and you get billions of hits on the subject of whether globalisation causes war. You don't get many the other way around: the operationalising of globalisation through war. There is surely a book waiting to be written on this topic if it isn't out there already (and I would be surprised if it isn't).

By coincidence I am currently re-reading John Dower's Embracing Defeat at bed time and listening to Part II of Dan Carlin's "Kings of Kings" on my commutes, and both of them touch on this topic in fascinating ways. From Embracing Defeat (on the relationship between the Japanese Imperial House and the American occupying forces): 

"The imperial household...quickly [revealed] a genius for grasping the American's love of aristocratic pomp and pageantry. Invitations were regularly extended to high occupation officials to the court's genteel pastimes. Geisha parties became bonding places for the middling elites, but the upper-class activities to which high-ranking members of the occupation forces were invited were refined to a fault: firefly catching, cherry-blossom viewing on the palace grounds, bamboo-sprout hunts, traditional sword-fighting exhibitions at the palace, even an occasional wild boar hunt [...] While the media in the United States were chuckling and enthusing over the 'Americanization' of Japan, the Japanese were quietly and skillfully Japanizing the Americans."

The occupation, as Dower portrays it, may have been all manner of different things, but among them it was a globalising movement of quite unique power: over the course of the seven-year occupation more was done to Americanize Japanese culture than could have been done by a century of trade alone, and at the same time American elites became acculturated to Japan in a way they may never have really done otherwise. (Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that the lionization of Japanese business practices in the 60s-80s and the current obsession with Japanese pop culture around the world may have derived some of their potency from the fact that the most important global elite of all - American military and political leaders - were seduced so effectively by the emperor and his cronies in the late 1940s?)

Dan Carlin's description of the military campaigns of the Persian Empire are much more colourful, exotic and direct, and had me delving into Herodotus's Histories today over my lunch break. The Achaemenids ruled a territory so vast that they were able to conscript troops from lands ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan. Herodotus describes Persian armies of the era as comprising detachments of Sudanese warriors with their entire bodies painted half-white and half-red, "Black Ethiopians" from India who are thought by modern historians to have been Dravidians from the South of the sub-continent, tribesmen from the islands of the Red Sea, Colchians (from modern day Georgia) with wooden helmets, Chorasmians from the shores of the Aral Sea, and so on and so on almost endlessly - a veritable who's who of Eurasian geography. These peoples may have been loosely connected previously by trading networks spanning the continents, but what possibly could have been as expedient as war in bringing together representatives of all these disparate races, cultures and societies?

Think of the fantasy world equivalents. What different scattered exotic peoples might orcish empires bring together in unison? What might drow military campaigns do to shake up the cultural makeup of the Underdark? What random bands of mercenaries, deserters and routed wanderers from vastly distant places across the globe might be passing through the campaign map in the aftermath of a war? And how might a meeting with such people spark the imaginations of the PCs to get out there and do some travelling? 

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Mindfulness and Creativity

It's very unlike me, but I have been doing some experimenting with mindfulness meditation in recent weeks, mainly inspired by Sam Harris and Robert Wright expounding on it at great length in this podcast episode.

(On a totally unrelated note, isn't it amazing how, while everybody would tell you that in the internet age everything has to be short and punchy and superficial, many of the world's most popular podcasters - Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Dan Carlin, etc. - make such hugely, luxuriantly lengthy episodes?)

After spending 10-20 minutes a day doing it pretty consistently, I think I can see very rudimentary effects - at least at the level that I can now very easily, almost automatically, identify when I am being sidetracked from a given task by distracting thoughts and bring my attention back to where it needs to be. By no means has this transformed me into a whirlwind of productivity, but it has at least managed to help me realise when certain thoughts (about work, money, family, whatever) are preventing me from fully focusing on what I want to be focusing on - whether that be listening to a presentation or the radio, reading a book, playing with my daughter, and so on.

Oddly enough, though, at a phenomenological level I think what I have gleaned so far from this basic mindfulness practice is a felt understanding (I think that is the best way of putting it) that the conscious mind - what I think of as me - is in a sense a passenger of the unconscious mind. Thoughts simply arise (in their tens of thousands, as I'm sure you're aware if you've ever tried the standard "focus on your breath" mindfulness routine) and the conscious mind assesses, confronts, responds to, analyses, and is influenced by them. It's as though your conscious mind is dancing around on top of  highly geologically unstable ground which is constantly shifting under its feet and blasting geysers and sulphurous fumes into the air. As you practice meditation more and more, you get to the point where the conscious mind is actually able to at least observe this going on and identify to a degree where it needs to go; before you have ever begun practicing, the likelihood is you aren't really aware that your consciousness and unconsciousness have this relationship except at the level that you often find yourself having uncontrollable unwelcome thoughts which you get caught up in and prevent you from concentrating (or much worse). 

The relationship of all of this to creativity fascinates me, because, of course, the creative process is dominated by the unconscious mind - that's where creativity happens. (This is why good ideas usually strike you when you're not trying to have them.) Creating is, in a sense, the conscious mind picking out material from what the unconscious mind spits up at it - identifying good ideas and then working on them, polishing them, carving them into something worthwhile. It doesn't control the process in any sense; it's reliant on what boils up in the geysers and hot springs underfoot. 

I wonder, then, how mindfulness might help - or even hinder - this. At the nuts and bolts level it can surely only help, in that it aids focus and concentration in the long-term and thus contributes to the whole "99% perspiration" element of creativity. But on the other hand, when it comes to having good ideas, is there nothing to be said for being as unmindful as you can be - maybe even anti-mindful - in order to allow your unconscious mind to simply broil away, as unedited and unfiltered and unnoticed as possible? Might monitoring the unconscious not aid to dampen creativity in some way? 

Tuesday 5 December 2017

The OSR as D&D Stuckists

I am not a big fan of the moniker "OSR". I find it a little self-congratulatory, but also, being 36, I can't claim to have been on the D&D bandwagon long enough to feel comfortable adopting it. While I feel I have to use it, I regret doing so.

I have no expectation of any alternatives catching on, but I'd prefer to think of myself as a D&D Stuckist. Stuckism is an artists' movement which was established to promote "contemporary figurative painting with ideas"; it was started by a group of British artists in the late 1990s and took its name from Tracy Emin's accusation that Billy Childish, one of the founders, was "Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!" in the past. You can read its manifestos here, but in essence the group is about rejecting post-modernism in art, particularly in the way it is deployed in the contemporary British scene, and returning to humanist and universalist goals.

A lot of the Stuckist literature feels very teenage and deliberately provocative, although you get some nice soundbites out of it ("To call The Turner Prize 'The Turner Prize' is like calling bubble-gum 'caviar'"; "Today's critics display a disgraceful cowardice"). Two key concepts emerge: Remodernism and Anti-anti-art. The former is a plea for a re-engagement with Modernism - attempting to grapple with what it means to be human and with fundamental human truths through art. The latter is an assertion that Duchamp's insights may have been valuable in the context in which he was producing his Readymades, but that in the contemporary artistic establishment 'anti-art' had become the stultifying norm and true innovation was a return to 'spiritual art'.

D&D Stuckism doesn't need to be thought of as being quite so pretentious and porpentous as that. Quite the opposite. It's not about Remodernism and Anti-anti-art. D&D Stuckism (the 'OSR') has, rather, been about re-randomization and anti-anti-gamism.

Re-randomization is a return to, and re-engagement with, the creative power of dice, random tables, and sandbox play. It throws narrative control out of the door and reconnects us with processes which foster organic and surprising gaming session and campaigns.

Anti-anti-gamism is the reaction against two different movements which came to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s. The first strand ran through Dragonlance by way of the Old World of Darkness games through to 4th edition D&D. It emphasised story and deliberate construction and playing-out of narratives. The second ran through The Forge by way of Dogs in the Vineyard through Fate. It emphasised the spreading of narrative control from GM/referee to the players in order to make the creation of story the explicit aim of 'play'. Both of these movements were "anti-gamist" because they viewed the old ways of doing things - dice, dungeons, death saves - as embarrassingly like a game with winners and losers, and insufficiently high standards for hoped-for outcomes (a "story").

D&D Stuckism, in other words, isn't about reviving the old for its own sake; it's a desire to use old principles to revitalize what is current.

Friday 1 December 2017

Mythic Underworlds/Hells for Other Races

If the dungeon as "mythic underworld", is somehow representative of human hell, could there be other mythic underworlds for other races, waiting to be explored? A hell for dwarves, a hell for elves, a hell for dragons, a hell for beholders, a hell for vampires, and so on?

Let's be serious about this now. Hell for beholders isn't just a world of fluffy bunny rabbits who are nice to each other, or an infinity of poking devices. Hell for elves isn't just an infinite army of woodcutters. Fantasy is about starting off with a crazy set of prior assumptions and acting as though they are real. What would a hell for elves really look like?

Hell for elves would, I think, be something like a gargantuan satanic-mills-style clockwork underground city - dark, artificial, regimented, industrial, hard-working. Like an ant's nest in the industrial revolution in which everything is run to the strictest of deadlines and in which everything is done for a purpose. Elves are William Morris on steroids, so their hell has to be Blake's Satanic London on amphetamines. 

Hell for dwarves would be an eternity of sky: a place where there are not only no ceilings or earth above your head but no floors either - nothing solid on which you can rest, let along put anything or dig. Somewhere in which everything floats, in which nothing is permanent, in which nothing lasts or remains fixed in place for any length of time.

Hell for vampires is easy: a sun-blasted desert or jungle where it is never night and everything is constantly exposed to the harsh white light of equatorial noon. 

Hell for goblins, who only understand theft and brutality, would be an extremely productive and healthy farmland, like Tuscany or Provence, in which everybody is forced by benevolent but strict overseers to participate in the creation of beautiful agricultural produce, wines, etc.

Hell for dragons makes me think of an old Eastern European proverb I heard once: A thief's hell is the fear of thieves. A place where no matter how much treasure you gather, another dragon always steals it when you're not looking. Maybe instead of caves there are only scrapes on exposed hillsides where everybody can see exactly what everyone else is doing and how much treasure they have. The "have nots" plot constantly to dispossess the "haves" and gang up on them to achieve this. Then the previous "haves" team up against the new ones. Eternally.

Hell for beholders needs to play on their main traits: vision and xenophobia. Beholders live underground normally, so their hell must be above ground, but in a land swathed in thick fog that restricts visibility to a few yards. In it, all beholders are forced to work together by psychic hive mothers who control their slaves in such a way that they are fully aware of their lost autonomy and of the fact that they will spend the rest of eternity associating with their most despised brethren.

Hell for orcs is a tough one. They're the antithesis of humans, so maybe orcs in the human world of towns, villages, farms, orchards and so on are in their version of hell already. 

Monday 27 November 2017

Thoughts on the Post Apocalypse

I was thinking the other day about the worst days in my life. (Don't ask why I got onto that subject.) I tried to come up with a top 5. I quickly decided that by a long stretch, the top of the list was 11th March 2011, the date of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. That was the biggest negative watershed that there's been in my life: relationships almost irreparably damaged; treasured belongings destroyed; loved ones in mortal danger; financial ruin for the extended family. The actual physical experience was easy to get over and I don't remember at any time feeling any great sense of fear, but the aftermath was literally indescribable. The best I can do is to say that it was like living in an Etch-a-sketch picture which God suddenly grabbed in both hands and violently shook into disintegration for no reason. Or living in a kaleidoscope which had been stuck on one pattern for years and years and was then suddenly twisted repeatedly by a capricious child, throwing everything into utter confusion.

But fast forward 6 1/2 years and things have stabilised, as they inevitably do. There is a new normal. Recovery is underway. Homes have been rebuilt. Huge white-elephant "economic stimulus" public spending projects of the kind in which Japan specializes have been completed. Children have been born and others have grown up. Time has healed psychological wounds. Thing will never be the same as they were - the land is permanently scarred, friends and family members have died, the decline in the population levels in coastal towns may never be fully reversed. Yet the post-apocalypse, it turns out, is the green freshness of spring. Sometimes the apocalypse isn't an apocalypse at all; but it takes years to find that out.


One thing I'm always struck by when in the hills of Scotland, Wales or Northern England is that walking through those landscapes is to walk through the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe that in totality if not in scale far eclipses the deforestation of the Amazon. Once, Britain was almost entirely covered in woodland. In 1919 only 5% of the country was forested. The hills have been stripped bare. Entire ecosystems have disappeared, to be replaced by bleak windswept humps picked clear by sheep. What remains has great beauty, but it's almost a dead landscape. Just the merest fragments are left - some songbirds, badgers, foxes, the occasional buzzard. Refugees of a disaster that took place in slow motion over thousands of years. To them, modern Britain is like Gamma World.

It isn't over yet, though. Sheep were the unlikely harbingers of doom in previous centuries. Now it's monocultures and other modern agricultural practices. Turtle doves have declined by 97% since 1967. When I was a kid vast clouds of starlings would swarm in city centres at dusk. Their population has crashed by 89% since 1967. Sometimes a post-apocalypse isn't the end of the matter. Sometimes the apocalypses keep on coming.


Sheep - innocent, stupid, fluffy sheep - are often at the forefront of the apocalypse game, as it turns out. Visitors to the Scottish Highlands and islands are usually staggered by the emptiness of the landscape. It's one of the least-populated areas of Europe. The reasons for this are complicated, but one of the main ones is that during the 18th and 19th centuries landowners decided sheep were more profitable than people, and the latter had to give way as a result. An entire way of life disappeared over the course of a few generations; the island of Tiree had a population of nearly 5000 at one time; now it's a little over 500. Gaelic culture effectively no longer exists, the language is barely spoken, and all that's left is whisky distilleries, the occasional ceilidh, and holiday homes for rich people from Edinburgh or England.

A post-apocalypse may have its benefits for outsiders.

Monday 20 November 2017

The Autumn Wyvern Shoot

Each autumn, for just two weeks, the forests and mountains of Taynedale fall silent. Everybody knows what is coming: as the leaves begin to turn brown the cloud giants who rule the valley release their wyverns for their annual shoot. Nobody sane leaves sight of their bastle house until the leaves are beginning to fall and the hunt is over.

All year, the wyverns are fattened up on goats' meat and adolescent humans - one from each village. They are housed in special adamantine cages in each of the giants' estates, so small that they are unable to fly - this keeps their wing muscles artificially weakened. The combination of obesity and enfeeblement means that, when they are finally released, they can only manage short stuttering flights and must spend most of their time rushing about in the undergrowth until startled by the hunters.

The hunters themselves go out a week after the wyverns are released. Armed with huge composite bows, they stride out into the woods in search of their prey, accompanied by packs of tamed dire wolves who rove through the trees aiming to flush out quarry. The goal is to kill the flapping wyverns with single arrows through the heart or neck, although this takes exceptional shooting; more frequently the reptiles are brought down like pincushions by volleys of arrows and then savaged by the dire wolves when they crash to earth. Their bodies are hauled back to the giants' castles by teams of human servants with teams of oxen, and feasted on throughout the winter; sometimes the spoils are shared out among the local human serfs in special yuletide feasts.

Anybody travelling through Taynedale during the first half of the month of November may encounter wyverns, hunting parties, or both. Replace half of all entries on the random encounter table for those hexes with "wyvern" (75% of replaced entries) and "hunting party" (25% of replaced entries).

Wyvern: HD 7+7, AC 4, #ATT 2 (bite 2d6, stinger 1d6*), Move 60/Fly 120 (E). 
*Stinger is deadly poisonous on a failed save vs death
*Can only fly for 120 yards and must then rest for 6 turns

Hunting Parties consist of 2d6 cloud giants (HD 16+2, AC 4, #ATT 1 (short sword 3d4+11, composite bow 4d6+11), Move 180). Of these, 1 in 4 will be unarmed wolf handlers accompanied by 1d6 dire wolves each (HD 4+4, AC 6, #ATT 1 (bite 1d6+2), Move 180).  

There is a 1 in 3 chance each hunting party is accompanied by 1d3 teams of oxen with 1d4 human handlers. These are unarmed and 0-level.

Hunting parties generally have no interest per se in hunting humans, adventurers or otherwise, but their dire wolves are not so discerning. 

Friday 17 November 2017

Detective Work on Forgotten RPG Fanzines [Part I]

Somebody has, perhaps unlawfully, uploaded scans of the complete back catalogue of legendary 1990s role playing magazine arcane to t'internet. I've been enjoying reminiscing and being struck by how many things I remember in some of the editions; it's funny how vividly memories can come back to you even 20 years after the fact.

One feature that I had forgotten about was a regular update on RPG fanzines: basically, fanzine creators would send their wares into the magazine and the editor would provide details on how to get them. Out of curiosity, this evening when I got home from work I started googling some of them. I quickly found myself descending into a rabbit hole. There is something unbearably nostalgic in reading about these artifacts of an ancient era - the time of geocities, letters, international postal reply coupons, photocopies, staplers, the post. You can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of affection for that distant and optimistic decade, and a huge warm fuzzy glow for all of these dedicated amateurs slaving away over labours of love for (presumably) scant reward.

Here is what I have found regarding the 'zines mentioned in Issue #2:

Sumo's Karaoke Club: Described as a "well-written" 'zine respected for its direct attitude (the publisher "isn't afraid to print what he sees as the truth"). It seems to have been primarily focused on board games. It cost £2.95 per edition. I have managed to track down an index and some further information to this site (http://pages.pacificcoast.net/~greg/); apparently it ceased trading in 1998 but has a still-living descendant, Counter.

For Whom the Die Rolls: A play-by-mail 'zine which ran its own games (including Rail Baron and Railway Rivals) and had articles on how to run PBM games. It is listed as costing 30p plus P&P. Staggeringly, it still apparently existed through to 2014 (2014!!) and had 215 issues in its run. Its website and a back catalogue are all available here: http://www.fwtwr.com/fwtdr/

The Ides of March: Another play-by-mail 'zine specialising in Diplomacy. It is described as being "held together by one cock-eyed staple in the top left corner" and having a "lively" letters column. It cost £1. I have had difficulty finding information on it, although it is listed as number 64 diplomacy-archive.com's list of Greatest UK Diplomacy Zines of All Time (yes, really); in the same website's 1995 Zine Poll it came in at number 7 (although the publisher is castigated for his "insistence of winding up his subscribers through his own brand of moral Conservatism" - the snail-mail version of shitposting?). 

Vigilante: A free (yes - all you needed to do was send an SAE with international reply coupons to the Irish publisher) RPG 'zine specializing in WoD games. It is described as "pushing hard to achieve professional status" with "surprisingly good layout". I can find out absolutely nothing about it on the internet, and it seems to have disappeared without trace. 

Flagship: This seems like it was a big fish in the PBM pond - it even had separate editions for the UK, USA and Europe and its own Wikipedia entry. "Slick, clean, and extremely useful for anyone who is remotely interested in PBM games". It was £3 and staggeringly (again) it lasted for absolutely ages - 1983-2010. Its website states that it widened its coverage to board games and RPGs in later years.

Life's Rich Pageant: Another PBM specialist - a "grassroots fanzine that simply bubbles with enthusiasm". Information on this one is thin on the ground, although I found mention of it in another Diplomacy zine, Spring Offensive. (Why do I begin to get the impression you could write an entire PhD thesis on the world of Diplomacy 'zines?)

PBM Zine: An "amateurish" looking affair with well-written advice but "annoying" layout. It cost £1.50 and looks like it was very yellow. It has such an un-Google-able title I just couldn't find anything on it online. I expect there must be something on it somewhere.

One Man's Rubbish: Described as being expensive because it is £1 (£1!) for 24 pages, this is another PBM-focused affair which also published reviews of RPGs and card games. It "does not have any content of sufficient interest to make it worth buying regularly" (ooh, the burn). Oddly, there is an entire scan of one volume available online - you can read it here: http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/oldzines/rubbish2.pdf. It is an amazing thing - articles on the Proper Care of Floppy Disks nestling alongside rules for Armchair Cricket and a History of Motorsport. It already had fifty readers by its second issue and what looks like a lively correspondence with its readership; to think that we used to actually communicate with each other with letters and do so voluminously. How the world has changed in 20 years.

Games Games Games or G3: Originally titled Small Furry Creatures Press, this 'zine seemingly had ambitions of getting into retailers and had a good reputation "as an oracle of advice and reviews for gamers". It was £1.95. There is a Wikipedia stub entry for the publisher; I also dug out this page, which says the 'zine went quiet in 2001 after its anniversary issue - which staggeringly (again, again), was #150.

Games Gazette: A "genuinely amateur magazine" stuffed with reviews of all kinds of games. It seems to have been old even in arcane's day (it had recently celebrated its 15th - 15th! - anniversary) and, staggeringly (again, again, again) still exists in the form of this website (which definitely has the same owner, a man called Chris Baylis).

There is way more - way, way fucking more - of this to follow.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Pupa Man Hates Person Man

Person man eats noisy mess chewing spitting swallowing lips throat teeth. Person man stinks oily sweat excretes toxins pores oozing. Person man and person woman mating masturbating sleeping fleshy hairy bodies arms legs squirming writhing grunting. Person man writing scribbling books paper meaningless drivelling nonsense thoughts feelings words words words.

Pupa man hates person man.

Pupa Man: HD 1+1, AC 14, #ATT 2 (1d2/1d2), Move 120, No. Enc. 3d20
*Pupa men attack relentlessly, chanting their hate. For inspiration, roll 1d20 on the following table:
1 - Pupa man hates oily sweat!
2 - Pupa man hates noisy chatter!
3 - Pupa man hates swallowing lips!
4 - Pupa man hates oozing pores!
5 - Pupa man hates fleshy skin!
6 - Pupa man hates hairy bodies!
7 - Pupa man hates squirming legs!
8 - Pupa man hates wriggly fingers!
9 - Pupa man hates floppy arms!
10 - Pupa man hates grunting coughs!
11 - Pupa man hates stupid eyes!
12 - Pupa man hates reedy voice!
13 - Pupa man hates gibbering words!
14 - Pupa man hates veiny hands!
15 - Pupa man hates mammal stink!
16 - Pupa man hates phlegm-snot-spit!
17 - Pupa man hates breeding organs!
18 - Pupa man hates filthy orifices!
19 - Pupa man hates feelings!
20 - Pupa man hates person man!

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Gigaku Demons [Work in Progress]

These evil spirits manifest themselves as pitch black, semi-corporeal figures who move with an unusual dance-like grace and wear face masks which are distinctly corporeal - one might say hypercorporeal - in the vividness of their colours and the way those colours seem to burn themselves into the retina like lights. Through the eye holes stare very human-looking eyes.

If the mask is ever removed the spirit is banished; this can be done by making a successful grappling attack with both hands and then winning a straight STR check against STR 16. The spirit is instantly extinguished from this world, never to return.

If a human being wears one of the masks then they gain the ability to invoke the relevant magical abilities of the spirit owner, but the mask cannot be then removed - doing so results in the wearer's instant death. The wearer's speech, vision and hearing are restricted and he is at a permanent -4 penalty to initiative rolls, DEX checks, reaction dice, and any dice roll requiring clear sight, speech or hearing.

Some of the gigaku demons also carry additional corporeal paraphernalia with magical or non-magical effects. Their use does not have the same drawbacks as wearing the masks.

The gigaku demons are as follows:

Governor of the Way: A male figure wearing a mask with a tall black head dress and long silk sheets flowing down the back like a cape. He can open and close portals at will, and force up to 15 HD of enemies to dance uncontrollably in a procession in any direction for 400 yards, 3 times per day. Victims are allowed saving throws if this would force them off cliffs or into water or other clearly life-threatening scenarios. He also carries a war fan which can be used to send messages over long distances; the user whispers his message and then flips the fan around back-to-front, and this sends the message to the desired target as long as he or she is in eye-shot.

HD 7, AB +8, AC 16, #ATT 2 (War fan 1d4+2, Tetsubo 1d6+2), Move 120 

Lion with Tamers: One of these figures wears a big, bright red lion mask with staring eyes and a grinning snarl. From the back of the mask flows a vivid blue cape which swirls behind the Lion as he dances and capers. His two companions wear brown head masks with ruddy red cheeks and carry poles with hoops on the ends; they attempt to capture the Lion but never succeed. The Lion can bestow curses three times per day, and the Tamers can remove them and all other maledictions, likewise three times per day. The Tamers' weapons protect them from any attack by a wild beast, making them impervious to harm from teeth and claws; they function as lassos. 

If encountered, both Lion and Tamers will plead for aid in defeating the other. Each will immediately betray the PCs as soon as they make a choice, attacking from behind when combat is joined.

Lion: HD 4, AB +5, AC 14, #ATT 2 (Bagh nakh 1d4+1 x 2), Move 120
Tamers: HD 2+2, AB +3, AC 14, #ATT 1 (Lassoo), Move 120

Duke of Wu: A mask portraying a stylized vision of a Chinese nobleman, with a black cap, placid features, and a supercilious beatific smile. The shade-like figure wearing it walks serenely back and forth with folded arms, taking small graceful steps and gazing about itself with an arrogant air. 

The Duke of Wu can cast charm person once a day, hold person three times a day, confusion three times a day, suggestion three times a day, and feeblemind three times a day.

HD 7, AB +3, AC 14, #ATT 1 (Cane, 1d4), Move 120

Wrestler and Strongman: Two figures who are always seen together, guarding the Duke of Wu. Their semi-corporeal forms are big and somehow hulking; the first wears a top-knotted mask with jowls, the second a brutish bald visage. The Duke of Wu may amuse himself by offering gold, magic items and so on to anyone who can beat either of his guards in a grappling bout; beforehand the challenger must also put forward a valuable item as a "stake". The Duke of Wu's stakes are:

1 - A random magic item
2 - A random 'special' treasure
3 - A random gem stone
4 - A random item of jewelry

The Wrestler and Strongman both have STR 18.

HD 5, AB +6, AC 15, #ATT 1 (Sumo rush 1d6+2), Move 120

Old Widower and Old Widower's Child: the former is a bent, warped shade wearing a narrow-faced head mask from which are draped long, frail-looking wisps of grey hair and moustaches. The latter is thin, as though an adolescent; his mask is smooth, red-cheeked, and has a bowl-like shock of shortish black hair. 

These spirits claim their wife/mother was stolen from them by the Duke of Wu, who forced her to suicide when he tired of her. They will say that they seek help in gaining revenge, in return for the granting of a boon which they will bestow on the most powerful of their future helpers. But the "boon" in fact binds the recipient to the Old Widower and his Child in perpetual service; it is a geas which they cast on the recipient as he bows before them, binding him in perpetual servitude and causing him to die if his new master is destroyed. The Old Widower and Child will use their new servant to amass wealth, sending him out into the world to bring them gold and silver. This geas can only be undone by a powerful magician using a remove curse spell.

The Old Widower can also cast Command, Glyph of Warding, Sticks to Snakes, and Insect Plague three times a day.

Old Widower: HD 3, AB +2, AC 12, #ATT 1 (Stick 1d4), Move 90
Old Widower's Child: HD 2, AB +1, AC 12, #ATT 1 (Tanto 1d4) Move 120

Garuda: a lithe humanoid figure wearing a mask depicting the divine bird-man of legend - a sharp yellow hooked beak, like a scimitar, and a vast semi-circular head-dress of colourful foot-long feathers extending all around the top of the skull. In each hand it carries a Karambit of Sharpness. It acts like a predatory bird - rapacious, intelligent, perceptive, implacable.

The Garuda is only interested in hunting, stalking and killing.

HD 7+3, AB +9, AC 16, #ATT 2 (Karambit 1d6+2 x 2 [special]), Move 120

Chinese Maiden: a diminutive, sylph-like form maintaining her elegant movements despite her tiny crushed feet. Her mask's features are thin, expressionless, and cold; a long braid of hair hangs down from the back almost reaching to the ground.

The Chinese Maiden is pursued everywhere by the Drunken Persian King and his Followers (see below); she is almost never seen without them being within earshot. The Drunken Persian King longs for her hand in marriage; she will never give it, but will call on him for aid without compunction.

The Chinese Maiden undertakes to marry anybody who can bring her a blue rose. She can cast ESP, Audible Glamer, Phantasmal Force, Stinking Cloud, Confusion, Fear and Passwall, all once per day.

HD 3+3, AB +1, AC 12, #ATT 0, Move 120

Drunken Persian King with Followers: A corpulent figure with exaggerated movements demonstrating the strange agility intoxication can bring. His mask has a long beard of horse hair and a tall gaudy brass hat. He carries a gourd from which he occasionally takes a swig; it never runs out of its contents and instantly intoxicates anybody drinking from it (-4 to all dice rolls) for 12 hours. The Drunken Persian King is accompanied everywhere by 12 followers, all of whom wear crude masks with incompetently-carved features.

The Drunken Persian King is a suitor of the Chinese Maiden. He and his followers are always loitering near her so that if she looks their way they can demonstrate the King's virtues as a husband. This might involve showing he can knock his followers over, lift them above his head, leap over them, and so on. 

Drunken Persian King: HD 5, AB +6, AC 14, #ATT 1 (Sabre 1d8), Move 120
Followers: HD 2, AB +3, AC 14, #ATT 1 (Halberd 1d8), Move 120

Monk: A small stooped figure carrying a gnarled cane and a begging bowl. His mask is bald, and lined with deep exaggerated wrinkles cut into the wooden "flesh".

The Monk begs for money for sustenance, holding out his bowl. Nobody he asks for money can resist giving him all of the coinage which they have about their person. This they deposit in his apparently bottomless bowl. The money is transported to the Monk's grotto, where he retreats each evening; there is always 2d1000 gold pieces' worth of random coinage in this cave.

If the Monk is attacked or his bowl stolen, it is revealed to be empty.

The Monk's cane can be used to cast Teleport three times per day.

HD 2+1, AB +1, AC 12, ATT 1 (Cane 1d3), Moe 90

Friday 3 November 2017

New Rule: The Coterie

Comments on the last entry raised the possibility of playing a PC sage-with-bodyguard double-act. The sage gets the glory; the bodyguard gets the XP. This keeps sages nicely wimpy (why bother with the frivolities of combat or the hocus pocus party tricks of spellcasting?) while providing an outlet for their XP gains and proper protection for dangerous expeditions. I like the idea.

I wonder if it could be expanded to general play. Every time your character garners enough XP to gain a level you can instead elect to find him a henchman who the XP goes to. Your first level fighter could go up to second level.... or, instead, get a first level thief as a glamorous assistant. The XP left over (because a thief level costs so much less than a fighter one) gets saved towards that nice new first level magic-user you've had your eye on.

The DM might want to restrict the number of henchmen, chiefly at higher levels - big XP rewards could theoretically allow a PC to employ a miniature army of first level thieves. But then again that's not all that different to what happens at name level anyway. There's also a natural break on numbers because XP rewards get diluted the more henchmen there are - if a PC has five henchmen, all getting shares, he garners less XP to spend on his growing throng.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Thinking Aloud: Sages in the Underdark/Wildlife Photographers on Mars

One of the reasons I don't begrudge paying the TV license fee is BBC wildlife documentaries. (Do foreigners know that if you have a TV in Britain you have to pay a tax of £150 or so which goes to fund shite like Dr Who? Well...you do.) Blimey but we, as a nation, make bloody good wildlife documentaries. I have serious reservations about the way things have gone in recent years - there is way too much slo-mo and musical grandstanding in the recent big budget hits like Planet Earth II and Africa - but we are still streets ahead of the competition, and the excellent Springwatch is a great counterbalance to the OTT Attenborough flagships.

Ever since I was doing my old Monstrous Manual thread on rpg.net (see links to the right of this page), I have always had it in mind to do a game about the "sages" who appear in almost every entry speculating about monster origins, habits and behaviour. A campaign in which the PCs are a band of scholars heading out into the wilderness or underworld in search not of treasure but of knowledge about its denizens. Making records ("Ah, so the death mold uses sverfneblin tears as an aphrodisiac!") and getting XP for it.

You could do something similar about wildlife photographers - on MARS! or other alien environment of your choice. (Another variation would be idle aristocrats exploring the Lovecraftian Dreamlands or similar, taking Daguerrotype photographs with incredibly long exposure times and trying to stay alive long enough to get good shots.) PCs going out with the aim of documenting rather than looting - at most collecting samples.

The problem I invariably stumble against is how to measure success in such a game. So let's muse aloud. Getting XP for documenting facts about monsters can be calculable on a rarity basis (50 XP for uncommon, 250 XP for rare, and so on) but from there things would get complicated. You could divide or multiply the number of XP based on the clarity or accuracy of the information. You could also do it with the significance of the facts learned (appearance alone being a low XP reward; information about abilities being higher, and so on). And you could increase the ratio for the obscurity of the fact - it is harder to learn some abilities than others. If photographs were being used, the XP reward could be clarified by quality of the shot.

The problem is that you would end up spending a lot of time, I think, caught up in calculating XP, and consulting lists of XP for different monsters and/or categories of fact (how much XP is it worth to learn about a vampire's restriction on entering a home uninvited?, etc.). This would be a lot of work for DM and players alike. Are there any alternatives? Answers on a postcode or - at a push - a comment.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Bounded Serendipity and the Virtues of Flicking

I've got a thing for popular reference books. I can control it, though. I never let it get out of hand - only three or four books a night, and never enough to get more than a little bit educated.

The ultimate reference resource is wikipedia, of course, and I love getting lost on that website clicking from link to link, but its ubiquity had made the good old-fashioned coffee table reference book seem outmoded. This is a great shame, because physical reference books allow something no website can emulate - the flick-through. You can go to a random page on wikipedia if you want. But what you can't do is flick through all its entries rapidly and stop when something catches your eye. You can have serendipity, in other words, but not bounded serendipity.

Bounded serendipity is the function of a physical flick-through-able book. You pick it up. You flick through. You see something that intrigues you. You stop to make use of it. You repeat the exercise. It isn't random but nor is it structured. It provides value through being semi-random while making use of your own eye as final arbiter.

Bounded serendipity is one of the main reasons why physical bestiaries are important. Flicking through a bestiary will not give you purely random monsters like a generator could, but it will result in certain entries leaping out at you as you flick - influenced not by a dice roll but by subconscious creative forces. You need a monster for stocking a hex lair and as you page through your Monster Manual the Peryton stands out to you as somehow appropriate. It does not stand out through fluke alone but due to a mixture of fluke and deep creative tides churning somewhere in the ocean behind your eyes. It's a heady mixture of luck and unconscious choice.

The bounded serendipity of the flick-through also works well with spell lists and treasure tables for similar reasons, although a special mention has to be made of books of maps - whether fantasy maps or the road atlas variety.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Hyena Who Ate the Colour from the Sky

She comes in the day and turns it into endless grey: a hyena with infinite greed who can fit all the colour of the sky inside her belly and still have room to swallow a thousand men whole. She stands twelve feet tall and drools foamy saliva all around her as she walks, and her cackling cry echoes through the landscape for miles around her.

HD 10, AC 2, #ATT 3 DMG Special/1d6+3/1d6+3 Move 180 ML 7
*The hyena's bite attack does 1d6 damage as she hoists her victim off the ground; in the next round she swallows him or her whole. Victims can be cut from her belly if she is killed but they will die within 3 rounds of swallowing.
*The hyena can suck the colour out of the sky, turning it permanently grey and rendering the sun a mere plain white orb for a radius of one mile. She can do this once a day. In colourless zones the plants gradually die and nothing will grow. If she is killed the colours of the sky can be removed from her belly and used by an elven weaver to create material for a dozen robes or other garments worth 1,000 gp each.
*She trails saliva everywhere and can be tracked without requiring any sort of dice roll.
*She is accompanied everywhere by a dozen slave males (2 HD, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6, Move 180, ML 7).

Friday 20 October 2017

The Back of the Garuda: Or, Yet Another High Concept Campaign Setting

The last thing I need to do is come with another high concept campaign setting (I already have the dreams of a sleeping crocodile to finish off, and then the megadungeon inside a giant tree...), but what the heck, why not jot this down while it's fresh on my mind?

Have a read of the wikipedia entry for Garuda, the mythical gigantic bird-gods of Asian legend. Check out this paragraph:

Garudas are the great golden-winged Peng birds. They also have the ability to grow large or small, and to appear and disappear at will. Their wingspan is 330 yojanas (one yojana being 8 miles long). With one flap of its wings, a Peng bird dries up the waters of the sea so that it can gobble up all the exposed dragons. With another flap of its wings, it can level the mountains by moving them into the ocean.

A bird with a wingspan of 2640 miles. I can only speculate on how big that would make a feather, but think about what kind of societies might exist buried down beneath the plumage in what would presumably be near-darkness. Underdark creatures burrowing through the skin. Cities built into the hollow spaces within the feathers (living on the brink of potential apocalypse when a feather comes loose or the bird gets too vigorous with its preening). Blood farmed (mined?) for food or other purposes. Constant efforts to overcome radical shifts in the direction of gravity as the bird alternates between flying and perching upright. Legends of the great open space above, which can only be seen by climbing far, far upwards beyond anybody's wildest imagining...

Maybe I ought to stop reading wikipedia entries.

Thursday 19 October 2017

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

There is also some sort of primitive fear - the fear of a Savannah-dwelling early human/primate - of those dark, closed-off, cool spaces. To stand in an open space looking at a wood is like standing at the threshold of another, different world. A world where you don't belong. A wild place.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowheres. And they are alive.

But there are difficulties running games in forests realistically, by which I mean, without just being yet another bunch of adventure locales except featuring treants, dryads and wood elves rather than derro and drow and whatnot. Taking advantage of, and emphasising, the uniqueness of the forest as an environment. I think there are chiefly three sets of problems.

1) First, as Bryson also puts it, when describing the experience of actually walking through a forest for day after day:

There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

You can add excitement, danger and adventure with random encounters, of course, or hex locations, or even pre-planned encounters, for that matter, but at some stage it seems to me that if you're doing that too much you're not really being faithful to the nature of being in a forest as opposed to other sorts of environment. Emptiness and featurelessness is part of what journeying through a forest is.

2) When you are walking through a forest, you get surprised by things all the time. It's not an environment for humans (unless perhaps you are born into a tribe in the Amazon, and even Amazonian tribespeople manipulate their "forest" environment a lot). Your senses don't function well there: your main strength is sight, which is rendered defunct by the lack of visibility, and in comparison to just about any animal you could name, you have pathetically rudimentary senses of smell and hearing. The long and short of it is: whatever is round the corner knows you are there before you know about its existence. You are forever flushing grouse, being scared out of your skin by sudden bird alarm calls, and trying to identify the sources of mysterious movements in the undergrowth. You could be hunted and stalked with embarrassing ease by any serious predator.

This would make for good natural world as survival horror gaming (there is death lurking everywhere and it will get you) but not, I think, a long-term campaign.

3) Forests are in a sense featureless, but if at any given moment you stop while walking through one, you will be confronted by a radically different geography than you would have five minutes earlier. There are inclines, crevasses, streams, clearings, fallen trees, boulders, pools, a whole array of different features swallowed up by the trees and undergrowth and suddenly revealed to you as you pass by. More than in any other environment, the surroundings really matter - there is stuff everywhere.

So a realistic encounter in a forest has to take account of that. Want to fire an arrow? Deal with the fact that it's more difficult for your target not to be in cover. Want to creep up on an enemy? Deal with twigs and dried leaves everywhere. It's not so much that there's plenty of scenery to interact with, it's that you are overwhelmed by scenery; you have scenery up to the eyeballs, more scenery than you know what to do with.

This, among other things, makes forest adventuring - doing justice to what makes a forest a forest - one of the true last great frontiers of gaming.

Friday 29 September 2017

10 Yoon-Suin Dungeon Ideas

Dwarf fortress infested with Tulpas.

Secret crystal dragon treasure stash guarded by enchanted beasts (shishi, chinthe, etc.)

Observatory taken over by its automata caretakers.

Mine whose slaves have uncovered ancient magicks transforming them into ab-humans.

Great forge on the coast which uses sea water for cooling: it has created steam devils as a side effect and they have killed the owners.

Tomb of an ogre-mage trader on the back of a wandering giant tortoise.

Maze built by fakirs out of giant butterfly wings as a meditation aid to walk through 'mindfully'.

Major rakhosh's dwelling place: on the underside of a giant waterlilly leaf in a vast lake.

Quarry originally used for making statues; galeb duhr have been disturbed and they now use the quarry to store 'statues' of their own in the form of corpses.

Inverted pyramid home of an archmage which balances on a mountain peak which rises through the middle of a glacier.

Thursday 28 September 2017

Risus-based Hairy Maclary Story Game

Hairy McLary from Donaldson's Dairy
Charismatic Leader 4

Hercules Morse
As Big as a Horse 4

Bottomly Potts
Covered in Spots 4

Muffin McLay
Like a Bundle of Hay 4

Bitzer Maloney
All Skinny and Bony 4

Schnitzel von Krumm
With a Very Low Tum 4

Scarface Claw
The Toughest Tom in Town 4

It practically plays itself!

Thursday 21 September 2017

There'll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans...

On G+ somebody asked about an underwater campaign setting I was supposedly writing, called "Unit Swim" or "Union Swim" or something. This tickled me tremendously, but it also gives me the opportunity to talk about Behind Gently Smiling Jaws a bit - which I haven't done in a while.

One of the rules I made myself promise I would follow, pretty early on, is that nothing in BGSJ would come from or be based on other existing works of fantasy. It all had to be either completely novel or based off real world history or legend. This has worked well in large part, but has created a real sticking point in one area of the world map - the Underwater Ziggurats. These are remnants of alien cities on the sea floor which the crocodile supposedly saw in some lost era, akin to Atlantis - the conceit being that aliens did actually colonise the ocean bottom millions of years ago and the crocodile was witness to this. It's based on the Yonaguni Monument/Formation.

So far so good, but it turns out it is really difficult not to turn this area of the campaign setting into Deep Ones and Cthulhu and Father Dagon. Coming up with a concept of aliens living in underwater cities which owes nothing to Lovecraft is hard. His work is practically the first and last word on the subject.

I'm working on it.

Another stumbling block is more practical: format. I know that producing an eight-volume slip case is a really bad idea. A really, really bad idea. A really, really, really bad idea. But sometimes bad ideas sound very good - like that decision to eat a Double Decker after lunch, or that decision to miss the last train home on a night out, or that decision to have a cigarette when you know you shouldn't.... The multi-volume slip case idea just will not relinquish its hold.

Friday 15 September 2017

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - World Landscape Campaign Setting

world landscape is a made-up backdrop of beautiful European scenery in a painting. They are arguably examples of the shadow fantasy genre. Here is one:

A: The Gerontocracy of Basiney. A city where one in a thousand citizens is born an immortal struldbrug, who gradually accrues more and more wealth until he wields immense power and influence (but is too decrepit to enjoy it). A place in which corporatism not merely dominates but has run amok, like renaissance Florence or early modern Amsterdam as imagined by Gordon Gekko.

B: The Platinum Mountain. Ruled by a white dragon demigod who spins platinum thread, mined by his dwarf serfs, into webs and coils which he then magically animates into automata to serve him.

C: Servasser, the Sea Wolf Port. A fishing settlement which now lies largely abandoned; the population of fishermen and fishwives were infected by lycanthropy which spread through them like a plague. Now they inhabit its dilapidated ruins and raid the surrounding seas to assuage their ravenous hunger.

D: Gwenteliver's Castle. A fortress owned by the storm giant Gwenteliver, who surrounds herself with human slaves who she gradually interbreeds with giant insects, reptiles and other beasts. Her collection of art is unrivaled and strongly desired by almost all the Gerontocrats of Basiney.

E: The Smugglers' Cove. A small, secluded bay where smugglers from the neighbouring land of Celquinox come to liaise with rogue traders sneaking goods for trade past the tax collectors of Basiney. The people of Celquinox are a race of mutes who extend their necks with metal bands until their vocal chords no longer function; they employ their children to communicate on their behalf with strangers, and talk to each other with secret gestures they do not teach to outsiders.

F: The Entrance to the Spirals. An underground network of caves extending far beneath the surface of the earth, created in the ancient past by a burrowing worm which dug in endless repeating spiral tunnels. Somewhere these spirals connected with the tunnels of underground denizens such as the duergar, neogi, kuo-toa and the like, and they now throng with busy subterranean life which boils up from the bowels of the earth towards the surface.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Because Allah Loves Wondrous Variety

I do the odd bit of volunteering with a local wildlife conservation trust. A lot of this involves what is euphemistically called "grassland management" - what this typically means is cutting and raking up vast swathes of grass and other vegetation in order to allow tiny and obscure native species of plants to flourish. We arrive at some very remote and windswept location and destroy the peace for a day with strimmers, leaving it looking like a sheep that's been sheared - where once there was a jungle of plant life, now there is an open and empty patch of stubble. Like the deforestation of the Amazon in miniature. (But the main thing is that there's now a bit more growing space for a rare little flower that looks like a blob of moss and which nobody except a few enthusiasts has ever heard of.)

What I've learned from all of this is that, just when you think you have a feel for how much variety there is in the natural world, you find out you don't know the half of it. Grasslands are unbelievably varied. Today I was in a more-or-less unique habitat - a strip of land about a mile long and no more than 100 yards wide along the side of a river. Mine run-off containing traces of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead had been put into the river during the industrial revolution and gradually this had seeped into the banks at various locations up and down its length. While the river is now pristine, the heavy metals have remained in the soil. This was one such location, and it had resulted in a blend of plant life that you would find nowhere else on earth - including a sub-species that you find literally nowhere else other than these slivers of land on the upstream banks of the Tyne.

And that was just in the afternoon. In the morning we had been at an abandoned quarry where the limestone scree happened to produce the perfect conditions for a certain rare alpine flower. The site could have been no more than 400 yards in diameter. Go outside of that limit in any direction and you would be in a different habitat altogether and noticeably so.

The world is a patchwork of different environments so multitudinous it is almost mind-boggling. When creating a hexmap we tend to paint in very broad brush strokes - forest, grassland, desert, etc. This makes life easy, but causes us to miss out on some benefits that thinking in very granular detail could bring. Consider: what different types of grassland might exist in a world where there is not just mine run-off but also materials left over from magical duels? What types of unique habitats might sprout up around the corpse of dragons? What might the existence of a megadungeon do to the area around the entrance? And what kind of druids, treants, and other guardians would exist to protect these unique environments?

Monday 11 September 2017

Good DMing Advice; or, God Loves a Trier

One of my favourite bits of DMing advice comes, in all places, in the 2nd edition DMG. Zeb Cook (I am paraphrasing because I don't have it to hand) basically foreshadows some OSR thinking in one place only, which comes in his discussion of stat requirements for character classes. Don't let players access any class they want, he recommends; keep the stat requirements for rangers, paladins and so forth strictly. Encourage players to play the stats they are given, so to speak. Let the dice fall where they lay; so your PC didn't end up getting the 17 CHA required to be a paladin. Stop being titty-lipped about it - you can play a fighter who always wanted to be paladin but failed (or hasn't yet succeeded).

In other words, a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. That's a PC with a ready-made goal and pretty much ready-made personality too. He may not have special paladin powers but being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved.

You can tell 2nd edition was very much focused at a younger audience - this is the kind of advice that's important for kids, whereas adults should in theory at least have already learned those lessons. But the wider point holds for all ages: it's good for starting PCs to have goals. It makes the PC part of the world and gives the player an impetus to drive things along, which helps the DM tremendously.

Friday 8 September 2017

Nevelskoy's Privateers

The realm of the Tsar has finally finished its vast Westward expansion and made its way to the mouth of the Amur River and the great island of Sakhalin. Nothing of this is known to the inhabitants of the Japanese islands, but the world has far from lain still since their isolation began. Now Russian explorers, adventurers and pirates are beginning to make their way across the Sea of Japan - albeit in small numbers. Here is an expedition of such men: a blend of banditry and science with a common aim of invasion and theft.

Leader: Gennady Nevelskoy. A fur trader, explorer, pioneer and buccaneer who has spent two decades charting the waters of Kamchatka and Sakhalin and trading with their natives. Now he has headed south to Vladivostok and formed an expedition to try to capture Nipponese to bring them to the Tsar - or, failing that, to bring back treasures at the very least.

HD 4, AC 16, AB +5, ATT Sabre, two pistols, Move 120
*Can fire both pistols in the same round if both shots are directed at the same target
Possessions: Splint mail armour, sabre, two pistols with ivory butts [350 sp each], powder and 50 shots, gold signet ring [300 sp], ruby-studded gold thumb ring [1,000 sp], silver belt buckle [50 sp]

Second in Command: "Fyodor" the Koryak. A native of Kamchatka who Nevelskoy befriended in his youth; the two saw in each other a desperation to make the world their own, and quickly became partners. Fyodor's real name was unpronounceable to Nevelskoy, who called his comrade after Saint Fyodor the Black, a Duke from the middle-ages who married a Mongol princess. Fyodor comes from the warlike Koryak tribe and wears the lamellar armour of his people; in a fight his brown eyes shine with dangerous glee.

HD 5, AC 20, AB +6, ATT Axe, javelins, Move 120
*Fights in a frenzy; once in melee he does not retreat and fights to -9 hit points
Possessions: Axe, 4 javelins, lamellar armour (seal leather and metal), religious charms (reindeer horn carvings of indistinct figurines)

Clergyman-scientist: Kirill Laxman. A Lutheran priest from Finnmark who came as a missionary to Siberia and hence to Japan. While nominally aiming at conversion his true passion is the recovery of flora, fauna and ancient artefacts which he can take back home to his museum in Irkutsk - or even to the Tsar in St Petersburg. He is middle-aged, bespectacled, and balding, but as tough as a life spent in the wilds of Siberia would suggest.

HD 3, AC 14, AB +1, ATT Pistol, knife, Move 120
Possessions: Spectacles, binoculars, note book, St Christopher necklace [100 sp], pocket watch [priceless in Japan], hide armour

Geographer: Vasily Golovnin. A minor nobleman and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, aiming at least notionally to chart the coastline of Nippon and, in particular, easy landing locations. In connection with this he wants any and all information available about the lay of the land, the locations of rivers, and so on. However, he also has an alternative secret goal which is to do away with Nevelskoy and Fyodor, paid for by the duo's enemies and rivals in Vladivostok. He plans to do this through concealing their deaths as an accident or, at last resort, poisoning their food. He is tall, thin, with an unhappy straight line of a mouth and sunken eyes.

HD 3, AC 16, AB +1, ATT Pistol, sabre, Move 120
Possessions: Telescope, compass, charts of Kamchatka and Sakhalin, hide armour, vial of arsenic

Crew: A mixture of outlaws, runaways, dispossessed noblemen, brigands, adventurers, escapees, mercenaries, thugs and petty criminals, united under Nevelskoy’s man’s-man leadership toward the common goal of getting rich off the exploitation of exotic wildernesses.

They are as tough as hard leather, as mean as snakes, as gluttonous as dogs, and as clever as magpies. There are 24 of them in total.

HD 1+2, AC 16, AB +2, ATT Sabre, axe or spear; and/or musket, Move 120

Ship: The Speshnoy is a small sloop with a shallow hull capable of being moored on land. It carries supplies of rations, fresh water, rope, and other such items. It also contains 6 sacks of gunpowder, each weighing 10 kilogrammes [worth 200 sp each], and 56 one-litre flasks of vodka [worth 50 sp each]. Locked in a chest, to which only Nevelskoy has the key, is 20,000 sp worth of gold bullion in irregular small slabs, for bribes and emergencies.

Camp: The Russian crew have created a camp in a cove on the beach. The Speshnoy has been dragged ashore and there are tents placed in a semi-circle around it; there are always four guards on watch during the night. During the day the crew roam the forests nearby in groups of 3-6, hunting, foraging, and searching for natives to kidnap or items to steal.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Dictionary Monsters

For years now, off and on, I've been meaning to write this post - but kept forgetting. Patrick's most recent post gives me the necessary spur to do it.

It all began back when I was living in Japan. My then-girlfriend had this electronic dictionary which resembled a mini-laptop; it contained more or less every English and Japanese dictionary ever published, and allowed you to search and cross reference between them in very powerful ways. (It was the kind of thing now rendered defunct by ubiquitous smart phones and Google; dictionary websites and Google Translate are much more superficial but allow the language learner to translate simple words and phrases just as quickly if they don't mind some inaccuracies and decontextualisation.) One day I was bored for some reason and started looking up simple words in it in pocket dictionaries, like "cat" and "table", wondering how they had been defined. I suppose I was entertained by the sheer redundancy of having the word "cat" in your bog-standard definitional dictionary; in what universe are there people who are good enough at English to be able to read and understand the definition of "cat", but who don't already know what a "cat" is?

Of course, such words are in there because of the need for completeness and because the mother of all dictionaries, the OED, is not really a catalogue of definitions but a catalogue of word histories and genealogies. But you get the idea: it's interesting to imagine an obscure people living in a parallel reality who understand our language but are fascinated by concepts such as "cat" and "table" as they page through our dictionaries.

(If you're curious - or if you are one of those people in that parallel reality - a cat is a "small animal with soft fur that people often keep as a pet" and a table is a "piece of furniture that consists of a flat top supported by legs".)

The interesting thing about these definitions is they don't really tell you a great deal. They flirt at descriptiveness without being particularly descriptive. A cat is a "small animal with soft fur" - so it could have six legs or two; it could have a single cyclopean eye; it could have no head at all but eyes and mouth located in its torso. Looked at this way, dictionary definitions are quite inspiring and lead to all sorts of flights of fancy. Consider:

"A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice."

"A tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping."

"A gregarious burrowing plant-eating mammal, with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail."

"An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen."

"A long limbless reptile which has no eyelids, a short tail, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension."

"A large perching bird with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice."

"A heavily built omnivorous nocturnal mammal of the weasel family, typically having a grey and black coat."

What images do they call up in your mind, once you've got past the actual image of the real-world creature referred to? What does the large perching bird say with its raucous voice? Why does the heavily built weasel wear a coat? Why is such prominence given to the domesticated carnivorous mammal's non-retractable claws? What direction to the long limbless reptile's jaws extend in?

Seen in this way, the dictionary becomes a source of great inspiration for monster design. You could, if you were minded to, create an entire setting that way: replacing all the real world animals with new creatures based only on their dictionary descriptions. A world in which people farm sheep and cows but they're not our sheep and cows; hunt foxes but they're not our foxes; put down traps for mice but they're not our mice....and so on and so forth. Alternatively, it's just a way to come up with something different when the juices aren't flowing. What's in the next cavern in the dungeon? Ok, a snake...but its jaws extend forwards.

Friday 1 September 2017

Old Farts Solve Mysteries

The other day I was sitting in a cafe in Hexham, a rather eccentric old market town in Northumberland, just watching the world go by. Like everywhere in Northumberland, Hexham is a weird mix of the very wealthy and the very rural - two worlds co-existing side-by-side, one in which everybody is a solicitor who shops at Waitrose; the other in which everybody is a farm labourer whose parents are cousins. (China Mieville missed a trick with The City & The City - he should have set it in the English countryside without a doubt.)

A group of old men - old farts, let's face it - were sitting on the next table on the pavement, having what seemed like a regular meeting. They were old friends who may very well have been meeting up for a cuppa every day for the last 40 years; that was the kind of vibe they gave off. However, you couldn't, if you had tried, come up with four more different characters.

One of them was big, Jabba the Hutt corpulent, wearing a black waxed jacked despite it being summer, and with his thinning hair plastered to his scalp with styling gel in a manner that suggested he had scooped fistfuls of the stuff out of a bucket and lathered his head with it an hour previously. But, to top it off, he had somehow managed to get what looked like a half dozen or so pigeon feathers stuck into it. He didn't seem to be aware of this, and his friends were seemingly too polite to tell him, but they were right there, plain as the nose on your face. I imagine his name was Derek.

Next to Derek was another portly character but one who carried it with that sort of rotund dignity which some older men can pull off - he was the kind of guy who would pat his stomach after dining on a dessert of a cheese platter and port and announce "I always say that a belly on an older man signifies a certain joie de vivre!" He was wearing an expensive blazer and a turtle-neck sweater and had a neat beard. He looked like a retired art salesman. Let's call him Jeremy.

Standing chatting to them, obviously not quite having got round to ordering a drink yet, was a more wiry character dressed head to foot in expensive cycling gear as though he had literally just finished completing a stage in the Tour de France five minutes earlier. Skin-tight blue lycra, slipstream helmet, the works. He had the body that most fit 55-60 year old men have: skinny everywhere except an overhanging pot belly they can never get rid of. He was plainly having his mid-life crisis 15 years too late. He looked like a Brian.

And pulling up a chair as I sat there was somebody we'll call Gary - tall, thin and slightly dreary, a long drink of water. He was an ageing hippy sort, wearing a colourful woollen garment I can only describe as a smock, sandals, and ragged denim shorts. He was the kind of guy who has thumb rings. I think he may have been wearing a CND badge. What I am absolutely sure of is that he was carrying a Waterstone's bag and brought out of it to show his friends a biography of Bob Marley he had just bought.

I felt immediately like somebody ought to write a novel about Derek, Jeremy, Brian and Gary. They were, clearly, a cabal of wizards, vampires, or occult investigators. Why else would they be meeting up like that, except to discuss the sacrifice of virgins or plot the assassination of a shaman in Mongolia via astral projection?

Better yet, they were self-evidently NPCs in a campaign of Call of Cthulhu, instantiated into our reality from a gaming session taking place among a group of teenagers in a flat nearby. These gamers had concentrated so hard, and smoked so much weed, that their shared imaginings had actually manifested themselves corporeally in the form of these men sitting in Hexham high street. That could surely be the only explanation, couldn't it?

The good thing about Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness, I always think, is that you only have to really look just around the corner for inspiration to smack you in the face. With D&D you have to work a little bit harder. Fantasy is one thing. The real world is a much stranger place.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Living Treasures and Human Capital

In Britain, at a certain point in their career, celebrities start to get referred to as "national treasures". The exact stage at which this happens differs by the individual, but at some specific moment, as though it is preordained, journalists collectively begin to use this phrase to refer to a given person whenever they mention them. Usually these people are extremely obscure to foreigners - Bruce Forsyth, David Attenborough, David Jason, Victoria Wood, and Ken Dodd are the names that spring immediately to mind; Stephen Fry has been making a concerted effort to achieve National Treasure status for what seems like decades now.

In Japan they have a different and more official "national treasure" club. Skilled craftsmen of whatever kind can, in recognition of their excellence in pottery, metalwork or whatever, be bestowed with the status of "living national treasure" (literally translated, a "human national treasure"). This entitles them to a lifelong government stipend, among other things. In Japan, they take crafts seriously.

Anyway, I was thinking about this earlier today: what if there actually were human treasures, who were worth XP just like gold or silver? Don't think slavery. Think in-game rewards for having sway over great artists and craftsmen.

What if, as well as for recovering a treasure chest from the dungeon, you could also earn experience for rescuing a kidnapped artisan of great renown? What if you could get XP for having a famous sculptor under your exclusive patronage? What if you could gain a level by persuading a brilliant potter to switch his allegiance from one lord to that of your own liege? I suppose what I'm saying is: What if there was a systematic way of valuing human capital in D&D?

Saturday 26 August 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People - Intro

The introduction to my next project, which is nearing completion in first draft form. It takes LotFP's pseudo-real world setting and has a look at what is going on in its version of 19th century Japan

It is the 7th year of the Tenpō era, which in distant Europe would be known as the Year of Our Lord 1837, and the Shōgunate is in its late autumn. Famine ravages the land. Everywhere peasants are in open rebellion. The samurai classes are growing impoverished and weary. Tokugawa Ieyoshi, the 12th Shōgun, is unhealthy and unpopular; the bakufu government, which has kept Japan in feudal isolation for 200 years, will disappear within a generation and the country will then be propelled into the modern age.

But for the time being, Japan hides itself behind the seas which surround it, and maintains its strange and lonely seclusion.

In the extreme North West tip of the island of Honshu the land and people practice their own form of isolation. Here, lost valleys of thick beech forest lay much as they have for a thousand years, cut off from the outside by ridges of hard mountains, harsh winter snows, and lack of interest. The people who live in those valleys are known as the Matagi, the "winter people", bear hunters, who still practice a way of life that they were following before the people known as the "Japanese" were ever even here. It is said by those who know of them that they are the last remnants of the people called Emishi, who in the ancient time of legends challenged the Japanese for rulership of the islands.

In the forests of the Matagi, things are not as they are outside. Ghosts lurk in the dark beech glades. Animal spirits stalk the mountains. There are rumours that fortresses and tombs of old Emishi kings lie hidden in isolated places, and that in those ruins treasures are hidden, waiting to be recovered. For those that know of it, the lands of the Matagi are distant, perilous, and alien - but also promising.

Adventuring PCs who have come to the forests of the Matagi are desperate samurai who, in need of wealth or glory, are willing to risk their lives in search of Emishi treasures. They have travelled by dark lonely roads and narrow paths to this land of rumour, and, if they are blessed, will leave it transformed so they can return to their homes and live in riches and good cheer - or at least survive the famines and rebellion which threaten to sweep society asunder. 

Friday 25 August 2017

Every Studio Ghibli Film I Have Seen Reviewed in One Sentence

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - Pre-Ghibli and has the feel about it of work produced by a man still feeling his feet; I like elements of it but it has never quite grabbed me: 6/10

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
 - The first Miyazaki Ghibli film - feels like he set out to create a blue-print that would almost become cliche by the end of his career: 9/10

Grave of the Fireflies - Slightly (but only slightly) over-rated tea-jerker; I find it a bit too manipulative while recognising its general excellence: 7/10

My Neighbour Totoro - Adorably under-stated modern fairy tale: 9/10

Kiki's Delivery Service - Dubbed versions of films are always terrible and this is doubly so of Ghibli films for some reason; this is the worst culprit - in Japanese it is a charming but throwaway romance; in English it borders on annoying: 7/10 or 4/10

Only Yesterday - The rarest of rare things - a successful film about childhood that is made for grown-ups and depicts childhood accurately: 9/10

Porco Rosso - I've never been able to make my mind up whether this is work of imaginative genius or a good idea in need of a better plot: 7/10

Whisper of the Heart - You'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy this film but it is, overall, a little bit too gentle even for somebody who likes understated films: 6/10

Princess Mononoke: Miyazaki's best effort in my view - a really mature, complex and deep story that does genuine justice to the subject matter: 9/10

My Neighbours the Yamadas - This may be my favourite Ghibli film of all from a sentimental perspective, but you may have to have lived in Japan and understand Japanese to really appreciate it; establishes Takahata's artistic vision as far superior and wider in range than Miyazaki Hayao's: 10/10

Spirited Away: You can't possibly argue that this film isn't a great technical and imaginative achievement but I find the denouement slightly perplexing and verging on the disappointing, as with many Miyazaki films: 8/10

Howl's Moving Castle: Beautifully atmospheric curate's egg; there are elements to adore and astound, but I always think of it as somehow less than the sum of its parts: 6/10

Ponyo: As with his first film, this late-era Miyazaki effort is a microcosm of his work - charming, imaginative, complex, beautiful, strange...but with problems of pacing and plot: 8/10

From Up on Poppy Hill: Of great historical curiosity because I lived and worked in and around Yokohama for years, so I have a hard time watching it as just a film; it's like a time capsule in animated form: 7/10

The Wind Rises: I can't decide - is this film the absolute apogee of Miyazaki's artistic and technical genius, in which he raises the bar for animated films forever, or a slightly over-long and even, dare I say it, slightly boring historical epic?: 7/10

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: This is not just the best Ghibli film of all, but quite probably the best animated film ever made (I'm still not sure I've quite recovered from the weeping wreck it reduced me to at the end) - it's almost as if Takahata watched Miyazaki making The Wind Rises and thought, "You think you're doing something accomplished?": 11/10

Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Dragon Body Snatchers of Vesper Autumnale

The northern mountains of Vesper Autumnale are burrowed through with the lairs of dragons of many different types - red, white, gold, silver, amethyst, crystal, and so on. Their internecine warfare is unending, which is just as well for the clans of scavenging body-snatchers who roam nomadically through the high passes. These peoples eke out a living purely from making use of the bodies of dead dragons; whenever a wyrm is killed in war or dies of age or disease they are appear, furtive, careful, quietly turning the corpse into something of great value.

Each adult member of every clan specialises in a certain task. For instance there are Armourers, who use the scales to fashion mail; Skinners, whose job is to separate hide from flesh without damaging either; Ivorists, who work the claws and teeth into useful products such as glue and paste; Ocularists, who use the lenses of they eye to produce fire-starting devices; and different artisans for every internal organ and muscle group, and more besides. Most prestigious of all are those with the dangerous task of making useful items from the glands which produce the dragon's breath weapon attack.

These different specialists each have different titles within each clan, and each clan can recite generation after generation of masters and apprentices all the way back to great antiquity. Because their way of life is so reliant on maximizing the use of whatever they find - for the high mountains are barren and can support little life - the greatest sin for the body snatchers of the mountains is sloppy workmanship, and the greatest virtue devoted craftsmanship.

A clan may go for vast stretches of time without finding a corpse, so the discovery of one is a great bonanza. It means that the clan is guaranteed food, shelter and other amenities for the foreseeable future. The rare occasions when clans go to war against each other come when two of them come across the body of a dragon at the same time. If the corpse is that of an ancient wyrm they may reach a compromise. But if it is that of a mere mature adult or younger, only a fight will resolve ownership.

Monday 21 August 2017

You Are the Modern Inklings

I have been quite down about the internet lately. So much sound and fury signifying nothing. But seeing all the G+ posts from people at Gen Con got me thinking about how many great, like-minded people there are out there in the world who I would know nothing of if it weren't for social media, and by extension I started thinking about the commenters on this blog over the years and, what can I say? I got all mushy inside, all bleary-eyed and sentimental, considering all of the value which you collectively have added to my life - in reading all of this nonsense and being such a good sounding board for my weird ideas.

I love you guys.

What I think blogging has allowed me to do is, in essence, find my own version of The Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis's group of friends who would meet twice a week at an Oxford pub (beer on Tuesday morning, conversation on Thursday evening) to talk about the things they were collectively interested in. Blogging is less fun in that it doesn't involve turning up to work half-cut every Tuesday - what could be more redolent of a long-lost era than a bunch of Oxford dons meeting up each Tuesday morning to go on the piss? - but there is something fundamentally similar about it, for me: an opportunity to share my ideas and creative impulses with my sympaticos, my tribe, my CS Lewises. (Not that I claim to be any sort of Tolkien.) And that should never be underestimated.

There's no substitute for real conversation and real, regular meetings with good friends. But at the same time, nor is there a substitute for being able to write blog posts about slug-men and have them find a worldwide audience. So, thanks, internet. You are a tool for evil and will bring about the ultimate decline and fall of Western civilization - of that I have no doubt. But you're not all bad.