Tuesday 28 February 2017

The Setting Book as Literature/Literature in the Form of Setting Book

There is literature (interpreted broadly to mean "something which is enjoyable to read on its own merits"). There are setting books. There is a small area of overlap between the two. If this was a Venn diagram, there would two circles with the diameter of Jupiter next to each other, with a few molecules of gas flirting with each other at the edge:

This sub-genre can be split into two further subgenres: setting books which are enjoyable to read on their own merits because they are highly imaginative, and things which have characters and a plot but where the setting itself is the main point of interest. I can think of a handful of examples of each.

Setting Books Which Are Enjoyable to Read on Their Own Merits

The original Planescape boxed set: the setting is so interesting that you can quite happily read it cover-to-cover. 

Maze of the Blue Medusa. Whether you would call it a "setting book" per se I'm not sure, but interpreting that phrase a little loosely it definitely qualifies - I read it as literature first and gaming material second. 

The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History. A slightly pretentious French setting book which records 1,000 years of history of an imaginary empire which rivaled Rome.

Changing Planes. Ursula K. Le Guin does Borges, basically - a whole book of vignettes about strange societies and the peoples who inhabit them (and worth tracking down if you can find it).

Books Which Have Characters and a Plot But Where the Setting Itself is the Main Point of Interest

Gulliver's Travels would go in this category. Nobody really reads it because they care what happens to Gulliver, do they?

Dinotopia. Dinotopia does have a plot, I think, but I can't remember any of it. The point is the dinosaurs and the very thematically consistent, beautiful artistic depictions of them and how humans interact with them.

The Years of Rice and Salt. I have read a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson novels and quite a few of them flirt with being primarily setting books but with a plot and characters to keep you interested for 800 pages. (The Mars trilogy has this feeling at times.) This one, though, tips over the edge into being an alternative history rather than a novel.

Invisible Cities. Italo Calvino's masterwork sort of has a story threading it all together, but the point of it is really the descriptions of the different cities/city. 

Sunday 26 February 2017

Creating Things in Order to be Free

In an interview in his later years Foucault described how he saw freedom:

“Freedom is practice; . . . the freedom of men is never assured by the laws and the institutions that are intended to guarantee them. That is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘freedom’ is what must be exercised . . . I think it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.”

In other words, laws and civil liberties and rights and all that are important, but ultimately freedom is something you have to do. The only way to be free is to be free. You have to literally "exercise" it. There is something to this. Freedom isn't merely some passive state of existence in which you happen not to be under any constraint. Freedom is an activity - it's the making of autonomous choices. By doing that, you are "exercising" freedom. (Foucault, I think, ultimately came to argue for a kind of philosophical self-help: through knowing and mastering yourself you can use that as a foundation to make free choices.)

In the modern world, it's easy to be seduced into what are essentially compulsions. Scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook newsfeed, commenting on Guardian articles, retweeting things, flitting between YouTube videos, playing video games, watching just-another-episode of a boxed set. Those things are addictive and are designed that way. The idea that those things are a wonderful new world of freedom, as they are sometimes portrayed, is a lie. When you choose to get out your phone to check your Facebook notifications you aren't exercising your free will any more than you are when you unconsciously scratch an itch.

There is a school of thought that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle which, roughly, says that freedom and virtue come from making things or practicing a craft or a profession well. In my mind, this line goes something like Aristotle -> Ruskin -> Morris -> MacIntyre -> Crawford. In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford puts forward the case for this craft-oriented view of freedom.

The essence of this is simple but perhaps counter-intuitive. When you have developed a certain level of mastery of a craft, you reach a point at which you have genuine agency. Somebody who is competent at a certain activity (cooking, mechanics, painting, Judo, teaching) knows what to pay attention to and what to ignore. They have control over the world around them when they are performing a task associated with the activity in question. They form their own understanding and perceptions of their surroundings, their tools, the thing they are creating or doing. Even when doing something involving a complex domain (e.g. competing against somebody in a Judo bout, or teaching a class), they know how to react to the unexpected. They act autonomously.

Though I agree with this, I would expand it and suggest that whenever people are engaged in a creative task they are exercising autonomy - they are actually doing freedom. When a good cook is cooking or a good painter is painting, they are making purposive choices in the absence of constraint. They understand their subject matter well enough to exert genuine agency over their creation.

I think this is the reason why creating gaming materials is a source of such pleasure and satisfaction for me, irrespective of whether what I make up will actually be used. The act of creation is itself liberating: imagining things that haven't existed before and committing them to paper is me as a human being exercising freedom.

Friday 24 February 2017

The End of an Era

I have decided never to visit rpg.net ever again. I have felt for a long time that the site has fallen prey to Bill Hicks' "fevered egos tainting our collective subconscious" - a coterie of very strange and miserable people with cripplingly low self-esteem, hell-bent on making life as awkward for everybody else as it is for them. (You don't have to be Carl Jung to notice there is something really weird and deep going on in the group psychology of that place; the spectacle of Trouble Tickets, with its mean-spirited sycophants egging on the mods to ever greater feats of arbitrary banning, is frankly just fucking bizarre.) The site is a case study in how control of speech leads almost in a straight line, as in A to B, to control of all other aspects of behaviour, and I'm not going to have any truck with that. 

I was happy to leave it at that, and have barely visited the site in the last, say, 2 years, except to see if anybody is talking about Yoon-Suin on it. (We all have our vanities.) But recent events, which you are probably aware of, made me feel that I had to be definitive and make a clean break. (If you don't know what those recent events are, consider yourself lucky and move on.)

This is a great shame. That forum was important to me once. I devoted a really quite stupidly inordinate amount of time to reviewing every monster in the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual there, but I loved every minute of it, and I look back on the days when I was writing those posts with great pride. The thread stands, I think, as an everlasting proof-of-concept of what feats of imagination a group of nerds can achieve together when they put their minds to it. There were some brilliantly imaginative people posting on that thread, and it created a virtuous circle of ever-greater feats of creativity. 

Indeed, I probably have to say that those years, around 2008-2009, were formatively important to me. Reading some of the posts on my thread, and posts elsewhere, taught me quite a lot about what the human imagination could do in community with other human imaginations. Not to make huge overstatements, but it was a genuine inspiration to me. There was a power in it. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have started the blog, wouldn't have got involved in online discussion of RPGs at all really, and in that sense wouldn't have any access to what is now quite a major outlet for my own creativity. I suspect I'd be doing something else instead, but still - rpg.net was responsible for setting me off down a path which has added a lot of enjoyment to my life. 

So here's to you, rpg.net. You may be shit now. But once, you were all right. 

Thursday 23 February 2017

Night, when deep sleep falleth on men

More thoughts on the day-and-night-last-100-years-world (I need to think of a name for it).

Physical Geography

A and B - These continents have been in the daylight for a very long time - 70 years or so, at a rough estimate. Plant growth has been vast, succored by the constant sun - much of the lower half of A and the upper half of B is thick jungle of hugely tall trees. This becomes temperate forest in the central part of A, then boreal forest, then at the tip where it has been evening for a number of decades there is icy tundra.

C - The daytime is very old here, so it is the lushest place of all. Nigh on a century of daylight has results in a verdant haven green. But on the eastern coast evening is already drawing in. It is mild, but - to coin a phrase - winter is coming.

D-M - These continent has been in the darkness for some years and all the plant life is dead. Fungus and lichen are the only growing things. The only exceptions are the far south-eastern corner of the south-eastern sub-continent of M, and the still-daylight western portion of the continent of E. That area throngs with animal life which has fled the night and has not yet hibernated. The central band of the continent of E is swathed in the evening: it is cool, dark, but not dead.

Human Geography

A-B - I picture human civilizations on the continents of A and B to be "ocean traversers". On the western half of these continents people would wait until evening was upon them and then migrate west over the ocean to L and M, where it would be daytime. Then when evening arrived there, they would skip back east across the ocean (at night) to arrive back at A and B again for the next day. A similar process would go on from the eastern side. When night arrived these civilizations would sail across the ocean to C, D and E for the daytime, and then when evening arrive there, they would skip back west over to A and B.

Since this is a regular process what has probably happened is that these ocean-going nomadic civilizations have built cities on both hemispheres - in A and B, L and M, and C, D and E. They live in these cities during the day, and then when night is upon them they take everything with them that isn't bolted down and go over to their other cities on the other side of the world, keeping their fingers crossed that nobody is going to destroy things while they're gone. (When they arrive on the other side of the ocean in their alternative homes, they are unsure of what they'll discover has happened there during the course of the night.)

So currently, their cities in A and B are full and prospering.

F, G, E, - Nomadic tribes dominate here. They are currently all gathered together bunched up at the western corner of E, preparing for night. Some tribes are settling down into ancient tunnel networks used since time immemorial, where they will shelter for the entire night and emerge blinking into the sun in 100 years' time. From there they will journey back across to F. (At choke points on the isthmuses between E and G there will be dwarf or gnome cities who charge certain tolls to pass.)
Other tribes use an alternative tactic - they are waiting in the daylight but when night falls they will as quickly as possible travel back across the night in order to get to F just as morning is dawning. They will then have it all to themselves before the "wait it out" tribes arrive, but the disadvantage is that travelling through the night exposes you to its terrors.

D - M - Around the coasts of all of these continents are sea-based nomads but of a different nature than those who flit across the oceans from A and B. The ones here are huge floating cities (a bit like in Mieville's The Scar) - during the day, or for periods of it, they may stay put or moor somewhere along a coast, but, equally, they may move. During the night, as it is now, they remain on the ocean, operating on the basis that it is safest to stay away from land and to keep in motion. (Maybe some of them actually steal into the abandoned cities in L and M of the people who live in A and B when they're not there.)


All of this is just the basic framework of how 'normal' mundane humanity operates. There is of course much more to it than that. Inland from the coasts is where things get interesting: cities which are inhabited above ground in the day and below ground at night; demi-human polities which are largely unaffected by lack of light (dwarves, maybe sverfneblin who merrily survive off fungus); subterranean orc strongholds which slumber through the day and come alive at night; wizard towers; magical moving castles; undead empires, etc., etc. There is clearly also a large role for myconids in this world - there could be entire kingdoms of the things living below ground but colonising the surface at night. And that's not to mention the Stuff of the Night itself - the elder gods who were there before the light came and who are forced to wander with the night for eternity.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

The Carnivorous Water Garden

An extract from what I'm working on:

The Carnivorous Water Garden

An oval space 200 yards in diameter under a blue sky - whether it is a shallow pond or waterlogged turf or something in between is not important. The only important thing is that it is sloppy sogging wet to the depth of a human's knees, and every inch contains coiled carnivorous bladderwort. Their yellow flowers stand up from the surface in their thousands, swaying gently in the breeze.

In the centre of this oval space stands a plinth on which two stone hands are positioned as if grasping upwards for something. A spear made out of the same type of stone and of similar design stands plunged into the wet bog 50 yards from the plinth, and when this is placed into the hands, the fists close around it. This spear symbolises that which was once owned by Itxlub, and returning it to its rightful place causes the doors to his mausoleum to open [see Area 6]. Movement in the marshy area is slowed to 1/4 the normal rate.

The air throngs with tiny albino flies, on whose larvae the bladderworts prey. These flies sap psychic energy and use it to breed. Any sentient being which enters the marshy area loses 10 XP per round. Once the cumulative total drained XP reaches 200, the albino swarm begins to undergo frenzied breeding. They come together in a dense, swirling cloud and the accumulated psychic weight begins to bend and flex reality in the dream world. Pressure is forced outwards and storm clouds gather overhead. The air grows cold and winds begin to swirl. The very air itself stretches, twists and writhes - and the effect on the human body is yet more profound. Anyone remaining in the marshy area three rounds after the flies begin to breed is squeezed, crushed, and wrung out, taking 2d6 hp damage per turn. The flies cease to breed after 6 rounds.

Seven servitors stand around the edges of the oval, positioned at the N, NE, SE, S, SW, W, NW. These are constructed from jade green ceramic material. Each is fixed in place and cannot move - a torso planted into the ground. Water constantly gushes from the mouth into a bowl that is held in the fists; periodically the servitors throw the contents of their bowls over the bladderwort field, scattering fresh water across its surface. The servitors are not aggressive, but if anybody attempts to remove the spear from the area, they will cause enough commotion through their movements to bring about a random encounter.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Sable-Vested Night, Eldest of Things

Thoughts return to the setting in which day and night both last a century.

In the last post on the topic, I described the following:

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?

As a setting, I think rather than being early in the night I would place the City at the precise point at which dusk segues into night. This is a world in which the sky is dark grey clouds laced with the orange-gold of a permanent sunset. It is cold but not glacial. Snow lies in patches but when the weather comes it is mostly sleet or hail. The forests and mountains are quiet: the animal life is preparing for hibernation or migrating to follow the sun. The last stragglers of the nomadic tribes pass to the West. The creatures of the night begin to appear. The things which have spent the last century underground begin to stir...

In the vicinity for PCs to explore/interact with are:

  • Underground stores left behind by migrating nomads
  • Lairs of hibernating beasts
  • Magic moving castle of an archmage which prowls the world searching for magical artifacts
  • Cults or religious orders who worship the night (or perhaps view it as the coming apocalypse/millennium)
  • Things emerging from the night itself - demons, wraiths, ghosts and so on
  • Dwarf settlements permanently underground, some of which lie abandoned
  • Mysteriously-abandoned "digger-type" citadel
  • Vast reindeer herds who move with the dusk gradually eastwards, and their herders
  • Settlement at a specific choke-point for travelers, run by psionic gnomes
  • Things within the City itself (natch)
  • Hermit arch-mages, witches and so forth hunkering down for the night
  • Elder gods who stalk the night
Above all I like the idea of the night being an actual physical presence, almost, which is older than the day. The night was there before there was light - and there are things in it which are the oldest things in the world. It's not that the night is the absence of day; rather, it's the night which moves. 

Monday 20 February 2017

Elementary Principles of Dungeon Drawing

I have recently been watching a series on Netflix called Abstract: The Art of Design. It's one of a family of Netflix documentary series that includes other topics such as chefs and artists; these things are basically a collection of hour-long hagiographies of specific people at the peak of their professions - you get no criticism of the subject whatsoever or any indication that they are anything other than perfect and perfectly happy - but still, they make for interesting viewing. (I think this is partly just because it's interesting to hear people talk in an informed way about a subject you know little about, and also partly because, let's face it, hagiographies are supposed to inspire, and that is what they do.)

Watching programmes about design makes you think about design, and in my case, dungeon design. There are lots of blog posts and other resources out there about how to make dungeons, and some of them are truly excellent. (Benoist's series on The RPG Site is the best of them.) There are interesting and innovative ideas about specific tasks such as keying (like the Dungeon Shorthand). There are thoughtful discusses at the level of principle (like Philotomy's Musings). But I don't think I've ever come across anything that is specifically about the design of a dungeon at the level of actually drawing it. When you sit down with a blank piece of paper, how do you actually draw a good dungeon level? How do you arrange the rooms and corridors to best effect? Where you do put the entrance and exit? Where do you put the traps and treasure? (Assuming you aren't random-stocking?)

So, let's think about it. You will have your own opinions which you are free to post here, or elsewhere. But here are some for starters. (Note: I almost never stick to these myself, but whenever I don't, I regret it.)

1. Rebuttable Preference for NSEW

Snazzy weird shapes and arrangements of rooms look good on paper but in my experience are really hard to explain at the table without ending up with the DM doing lots of drawing, which defeats the purpose of having players do the mapping. For this reason, I have a very strong preference for rooms which are basically rectangular or square (circles and hexagons are less good but okay; triangles are difficult; anything else is a pain). Similarly, I much prefer exits to be identifiable as a cardinal direction, and ditto for corridors to go in those directions. ("The corridor goes north," is so much simpler than "The corridor goes straight ahead for a bit, and then sort of bends to the left, and then corrects itself, and then bends left again...")

Fig. 1:

2. Symmetry is Lazy

It's easy to fall back on symmetry when you're having difficulty thinking. I'm sure you've all experienced this: you've drawn part of a dungeon and you're getting tired and so you do the DMing equivalent of a rorshach print and effectively fold it back on itself so you get twice as much bang for your buck, with one half of the page mirroring the other. This, in my experience, tends towards the drab, but also leads your imagination down a bit of a cul-de-sac - better to be expansive and keep sections of dungeon asymmetrical. (It's also somewhat unrealistic - architecture is rarely if ever symmetrical in real buildings.)

3. It's All About Connectivity

Perhaps the most important thing is connectivity. Compare Fig. 2 with Fig. 3 below.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 2 may have lots of rooms and a relatively complex layout but there are very few options for exploration - it is basically a railroad. At times PCs can go on detours, but these always lead to them having to retrace their steps, and their travel through the dungeon is ultimately limited to describing a glorified circle. This is bad.

Fig. 3 on the other hand is the same map but with connecting corridors added. Suddenly there are lots of options for the PCs when exploring, and also excuses for monsters in different parts of the dungeon to interact with each other. The PCs can actually interact with the map, once they've explored it, by taking shortcuts and setting up ambushes.

These maps are small and simple (and I have over-done things with Fig. 3 to make a point) but the principle is just as important in a dungeon with 100 rooms. Connectivity makes the experience richer for both DM and players.

4. Speed-Bump, Barrier, or Deflector 

From the perspective of PC movement, just about anything you can place in a dungeon that isn't treasure will be one of three things: a speed-bump, a barrier, or a deflector. Any monster, trap, puzzle or NPC has the potential to either:

  • Slow things down briefly (pause to kill some goblins or rescue the dwarf from the pit trap; resume)
  • Prevent progress entirely (big scary dragon or pit of level-draining ghost vipers is too dangerous; PCs don't move past it and hence an area of the dungeon is closed off until they can)
  • Deflect travel in a different direction (NPC tells the PCs about treasure in a certain room, puzzle leads to secret door, etc.)

This is worth considering when placing items in the dungeon after the rooms are mapped out. Anything you put anywhere will have one of those effects.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

[Modern Book of Lairs] II: Aboleth - Secumbei's Bath House

People on Google+ have been accusing me of being a COMPLETELY FUCKING IDIOTIC MORON or words to that effect for not doing things in ink or in a printable format. Well, I am nothing if not responsive to constructive feedback, so I've done this one in ink. I'm not sure if I will in future because the time spent increases threefold done this way and the ethos of the project is short-hand. But I will scan them in a way that can be printed and also will link to the files on Google Drive.

Text reads as follows:

Secumbei the Aboleth

Ancient marble bath house of a forgotten civilization lying in the depths of a cave system far below the surface of the earth where light never penetrates. Secumbei the aboleth found it and made it his.

Aboleth - HD 8, AC 16, DMG d6 (x4)
-Surrounded by slime (save vs poison or switch ability to breathe air for ability to breathe water)
-Telepathic enslavement 3x/day - save vs magic or be enslaved
-Victim of tentacle attacks must save vs magic - failure makes skin translucent during which time it must be kept wet or suffer d12 DMG (lasts d6 rounds)
-Improved Phantasmal Force 3x/day, Audible Glamer at will, ESP at will

(1) - Entrance cavern - stairs lead up to (2)
(2) - Helix, Secumbei's slave. Frail old man who uses reverse psychology to warn PCs they definitely shouldn't go through the 3 sets of double doors ahead. Untold horrors lie beyond, and he begs to be taken to surface. Claims to have lost memory of journey here.
(3) Bath chamber. Marble columns and tiles. Gleaming and pristine. Contains statues in SE and SW corners. Both of naked women with fish heads, carrying tridents, stone golems who attack on Secumbei's command. Eyes are aquamarines, 2000 gp value each.
(4) Pool. Fountain in centre pipes water from unknown pure source. Secumbei lives here.
(5) (6) - Guard chambers. Each contains two slaves. In (5) is kuo-toa priest, 7th level, AC 16, glue shield (1 in 4 chance of enemy weapons sticking), harpoon, Net of Suffication (victim dies in d6+1 rounds as net encloses/constricts). Also 7th level duergar, hammer, plate mail, shield, Ring of Truthlessness, Displacer Cloak. In (6) are two elven adventurers, enslaves - 7th level mage, AC 12, spells - Dimension Door, Hold Person, Dispel Magic, Lightning Bolt, Entangle, Web, Mirror Image, Hold Portal, Magic Missile, Light, Shield. Potions of Gaseous Form, Luck, Diminution, Clairvoyance. Gold necklace with opals - 5000 gp value. 7th level fighter, AC 16 (elven chain), longbow, sword, Horn of Blasting.
(7) Was once a changing room. Mosaic on walls of nude females. Now contains aborted dead egg from a failed "pregnancy" of Secumbei. Organs can be harvested for Potions of Water Breathing (x12), Potions of Water Elemental Control (x3), Potions of Purify/Putrefy Water (x6).
(8) As above but mosaics of nude males. Close inspection reveals they are all looking at a yellow mosaic sun. Prising free the small tiles reveals hole containing map to an area of the dungeon.
(9) Once a caretaker or cleaner's room. Overgrown with hibernating fungus which is edible and gives eaters enhanced sense of smell for 1 day (never surprised).
(10) Four deep gnome slaves, remnants of hunting party, they now watch over captive in (11). HD 4+6, 2 in 6 magic resist, Blindness/Blur/Change Self 1/day, AC 18 (deep gnome banded mail + shield), stun darts x 10 each (stun victim for 1 round, and slow for 4 rounds), sleep gas darts x 3 each, acid darts x 3 each (2d4+4 DMG). 
(11) Musabori the Paladin. Holy warrior from distant land, apparently immune to ESP, but Secumbei keeps him captive for further attempts - hoping to break him. Chained upside down from ceiling. Is an 8th level paladin, naked, no equipment (most magic items used by Secubmei's slaves were his). 

Monday 13 February 2017

[Modern Book of Lairs] I: Aarakocra - Ma-Chee's Family Fortress

Comments on recent posts lead me to start thinking about creating things that are playable without any, or with very little, preparation. The old Book of Lairs was cited as being an exceptionally useful example of that kind of material. That volume passed me by, but there's no reason why I can't write my own. I'm going to work my way alphabetically through the 2nd edition MM, creating a lair for each entry, and post them on the blog.

The rules are:

1. Each lair and all the necessary description fits on a page of A4.
2. It's done long-hand in pencil, which has become my optimal way of working and is how I think all DM prep should be done.
3. The tone should be vanilla and conventional enough to fit into anyone's D&D campaign.
4. There is not too much editing and perfectionism and preferably the whole thing is finished within an hour.

First up is the Aarakocra. The lair is Ma-Chee's Family Fortress. Here it is for you to print out.

But because I am such a kind person, I'll also transliterate my handwriting into text.

The text at the top right reads:

Female aarakocra with polygamous household of males and beta females with offspring. 

Aarakocra male: HD 1+2, AC 15 (cloth armour, wicker shield), DMG By weapon +1

Juvenile/beta female: HD 1, AC as equipment, DMG By weapon

Ma-Chee: HD 3+3, AC 16 (bronze mail), DMG By weapon+2

Mo-Bak: HD 3, AC 12, DMG By weapon

Two-headed owlbear: HD 5+2, AC 16, DMG 1d6/1d6/2d6/2d6; if both claw attacks hit, does 2d8 additional hug damage

Kolit-Ma: HD 2+2, AC 16, DMG By weapon+2

The text bottom left reads:

Five aarakocra can summon an air elemental in 3 rounds

Aarakocra can fly and dive attacks do +4 DMG

Then underneath is the room key.

1 - 3 guards. Juveniles (m). Lookouts - 2 will fight while 1 raises alarm. Slings, obsidian axes, cloth armour.
2 - Picture room. Zigzag patterns daubed on walls, befuddle the human eye. Dizziness for d6 turns for those examining (-2 to all dice rolls). 
3 - 4 males, husbands of Ma-Chee. Spears, slings, cloth armour, wicker shields. Shiny ancient electrum pieces x 24. Secret entrance to passage to (11), concealed by stone slab, requires combined STR 40 to move.
4 - Shrine to mountain god - disc of feathers around round bronze circle (100 gp, weighs 400 cn). Skulls of dead ancestors. Defilers are cursed while on the mountain (-2 to all rolls). 3 arrows placed as offering are heart seekers - always do max DMG and wound as magical arrows.
5 - Ma-Chee's chamber. 6 non-combatant children, 5 eggs. 4 males, obsidian axes, wicker shields, cloth armour. Ma-chee and her wizardress Mo-Bak.
6 - Treasure room. Wicker pots lined with leather x 6. 5 contain mix of sps, gps, cps (200 each per pot). Sixth pot contains quipu spellbook of Mo-Bak. Sleep, hold person, stone skin, magic mouth, darkness 15' radius, shocking grasp, audible glamer.
7 - Latrine. Stench causes vomiting and weakness (-4 to rolls for d6 hours on failed save vs poison).
8 - Pet. Mutant two-headed owlbear. Sits in darkness mourning meaninglessness of life unless alarm is raised or going to latrine (1 in 10 chance when PCs enter (7)). Remnants of local knight errant - bones, rusty armour, silver ring + garnet, 1000 gp value.
9 - Juvenile lookout - sling, cloth armour.
10 - Pit. 2 captives, human, one male one female, from local settlement. Pit covered in moss - attempting to ascend/descend unassisted results in fall for d3 DMG.
11 - 6 beta females, miserable, cooking stew on permanent fire. Obsidian clubs, slings, cauldron of stew sits on top of wooden slab covering entrance to secret tunnel to (3). 
12 - Ma-Chee's "favourite" husband, Kolit-Ma. Cloth armour, wicker shield, carries Javelin of the Storm - does 3d6 electric damage if used outside. Kolit-Ma will attempt to use it outside caves, thrown from feet while flying. 

Reading through, the only thing I realised I missed out when sketching it was that these caves are supposed to be a cross section of a mountain peak, with the entrances on either side.

Friday 10 February 2017

Desert Island Spells

What would be your desert island spell list? Not the spells that would be useful on a desert island, note. This means simply your favourite eight D&D spells.

Mine are, in no particular order:

1 - Augury. Fortune telling is, naturally enough, difficult to pull off in an RPG. Augury in its AD&D incarnation is a surprisingly elegant way of doing it. 

2 - Hold Person. As a DM I love this one for hostile magic-users - out of pure sadism. I think being immobilized and not able to do anything is almost the most annoying thing that can happen for a player in a game (even more annoying than death in some cases). And sometimes it is fun to annoy people.

3 - Hallucinatory Forest. I have never seen it used, but there is something endearing about this spell. Every now and then, amidst the melange of different influences making up D&D, you catch a glimpse of something that looks like it came out of a fairy tale. Hallucinatory Forest is one of those moments.

4 - Nystul's Magic Aura. Almost pointless, and yet...and yet...you can imagine situations in which it could be used, and such a situation would be really cool. Like using the magical aura to leave a clue for an associate in a cloak-and-dagger scenario, or to mislead an evil wizard, or something. It's the kind of thing you look at as a pretentious 12-year old DM and your mind explodes with all sorts of interesting ideas that you know your gaming group with its 12-year old members will never get anywhere near doing, because it's nothing to do with killing orcs.

5 - Prismatic Spray. For sheer FUCK YOU value, there's probably not much better than this spell. 

6 - Leomund's Tiny Hut. If only Scott had had this available to him on his journey back from the South Pole. I love the idea of a bespoke spell purely to allow PCs to survive in hostile environments, simply because it implies that that's the kind of thing PCs might want to get up to. 

7 - Magic Mouth. Like Nystul's Magic Aura, Magic Mouth is almost worth its own existence just for the uses you can imagine for it. Also, who can resist the idea of a rock or table or vase suddenly sprouting a mouth to spout a message to somebody? It is pure, childlike fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

8 - Cacodemon. Demon-summoning is one of my favourite fantasy tropes, so this has to close off the list. As with Hallucinatory Forest, the existence of this spell hints at something altogether different from the typical genre influences of D&D, except this time it's Dr Faustus rather than Brothers Grimm. 

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Something I Can Use at the Table

Not often, but sometimes, you come across people in RPG circles who almost bemoan creativity - as though it is a dangerous thing and the less of it the better.

Typically the argument goes something like this: "I don't want a weird exotic super-imaginative setting or module. My players won't read it or engage with it and it will be too difficult to pull off. Just give me something I can use at the table!"

Something I can use at the table is the lowest common denominator of the RPG hobby. I think what these people mean is that they want adventure modules that can be played out of the book with minimum fuss and don't put up any hurdles to accessibility for the average non-DMing player weaned on Tolkien, Weiss & Hickman and maybe at a push Steven Erikson. "I just want to have some fun," the implication seems to be. "Kill some orcs and steal some treasure over beer and pretzels!"

I can completely accept that accessibility and usefulness are virtues. We all have time pressures. Prepping for a game each week takes time. But "something I can use at the table" is such a trivially low bar that I have to question why anybody would want to pay money to anybody else for producing it. The length of time it takes to read and familiarize oneself with 36 pages of "something I can use at the table" is surely longer than the amount of time it takes to draw some squares and circles on a piece of paper and go "Orc guarding treasure here, goblins here, poison gas trap here, dragon there" - am I wrong? In other words, why are you looking for "something you can use at the table" to pay money for when it is trivially easy to make it up for yourself and spend your money on booze?

Don't misunderstand me. Killing orcs and stealing treasure in a dungeon is great. But in what universe does it make sense to pay actual money to another person to come up with it?

If I am paying money for an RPG product I want to pay for something I could not have come up with myself in any reasonable time frame. Usefulness is almost secondary - I can do useful. What I can't do is Deep Carbon Observatory. No? Am I missing something?

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Three Levels of Operational Closure in Fantasy Literature

You can create a taxonomy of fantasy based on the operational closure of the setting. I'm writing this on my phone so I'll be brief.

Operational closure means how self-contained the setting is.

The first taxon is the thread that goes Tolkien-Eddings-Martin. Here, the setting is an entirely operationally closed one. It purports to be self-contained entirely, and moreover to abide by internally consistent metaphysics and tone. Its paradigm RPG setting is the Pathfinder one.

The second taxon is the thread that goes Vance-Wolfe-Harrison. The setting is physically operationally closed (it is self-contained in the sense that it is independent of any other reality) but not metaphysically so. It exists in counterpose or contradistinction or ironic juxtaposition to our own reality.

The third taxon is the thread that goes Machen-Ende-Holdstock. The setting is operationally open. It assumes the existence of another reality (our own) and the story is based upon the interactions between those two realities.

I am going to end this brief post by saying that as I get older I rank these three approaches in reverse order. The most difficult but important fantasy stories are I think in taxon three. The easiest but least important are in taxon one. This is in direct opposition to how I would have ranked the different approaches at age 18.

Monday 6 February 2017

Once You Pop You Can't Stop

A clerihew is a four-line poem in AABB rhyming format. It should have the name of the subject in its first line, preferably at the end of it. That's about it for rules. "Clerihew" comes from the name of their creator, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. My favourites are:

“I quite realised” said Columbus,
“That the Earth was not a rhombus
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid”


It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose

Once you've started composing clerihews it's really difficult to stop yourself. For some reason last night while I was waiting for the missus to get ready to go out I started writing D&D-related ones. I was going to say I apologise if you've already seen some of these on G+...but actually fuck you, I apologise for nothing.

Do not have any shoulders
But when push comes to squeeze
What they really long for is knees

Love a tickle
But what gives their lives spice
Is human sacrifice

Rhymes with "flagon" and "wagon"
That's about it
For clerihews they're shit

Aquatic elves
Like to pleasure themselves
With special breeds of sharks
Which attach to their private parts

What is weird
About a duergar's beard
Is its grey hue
And its smell of dried poo

Dated elderly spinsters
And got himself written into their wills
In order to pay the bills

Water weirds
Are feared
For causing palavas
At swimming galas

Are uncomfortable in frocks
But get one in a muumuu
And it'll be a great hit amongst the glabrezu

(I genuinely do apologise for that one.)

A centaur
Will snore
And dream
When on ketamine

Gandalf the Grey
Said "Hey,
"Has anyone seen my staff?"
Saruman had hidden it for a laugh

Drizzt Do'Urden
Was certain
That at the sight of his scimitar Legolas
Was jealous

That's enough D&D clerihews for today I think.

Saturday 4 February 2017

A Map of a Memory World

I did some doodling with maps for BGSJ earlier, by way of illustration of how things are looking. This is by no means a final version - a proper artist will do that. Just for fun. Sorry it's a bit dim. 

Friday 3 February 2017

About Thinking

I had the great, inestimable, magnificent luxury of being able to take a sabbatical from work for four months at the end of last year. No emails, no meetings, no classes - just reading and writing. I accomplished a lot, but the thing I am most pleased about of all was that I was able to do a heck of a lot of just sitting and thinking about things carefully. It's easy to forget how unproductive you become if you are exposed to the constant drip-drip-drip of distractions that is the modern workplace. Doing anything really creatively good needs not just time but a certain type of time: your brain needs to get itself into a state that combines both relaxation with hard work.

You can hear a fascinating recent interview with David Gelemter on this topic if you are interested. The long and short of it is that our minds tend to switch between two modes of thinking - the rational, alert, analytical type ("up" thinking), and the mellow, sleepy, dreamy, intuitive type ("down" thinking). The reason why creating things is so difficult is that you need to combine both. You need to be able to let your mind wander in an uncontrolled free associative sort of way - that is, "down" thinking - because that's where inspiration comes from. "Up" thinking polices creativity too much through overanalysis. But at the same time you need to exert a certain rationality and analysis over the process to make things concrete and to judge what are the good ideas and the bad ones - and also to discipline yourself to producing the things that you are imagining. So to be productive - particularly productively creative - your brain needs to balance (or oscillate) between "up" and "down" modes.

You can't do this without extended periods of time so that you can find that balance/oscillation. Distractions break it.

I refer you back to my earlier post about the friendliness of boredom. If you want to create things, you need to get into a zone of stillness so you can think in a very special and careful way. As soon as you check your emails, your phone, or whatever, you get yanked out of that zone (it is almost a physical sensation) and you have to wait for a long time to get it back. Give in to distractions too often, and you never get into the zone at all.

One of the greatest challenges facing mankind today is distraction, and how it prevents proper thought.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Though so stupid were they that they could hardly pronounce the word

Headless Sopater and the Euoplocephalus

Sopater of Apamea was known as a man of extraordinary brilliance who went to the court of Constantine to convert the emperor to the study of philosophy. For a time Constantine held him in the highest regard and even asked if Sopater could purify him after he murdered his son. But jealousy on the part of those "so stupid that they could hardly pronounce his name" was soon Sopater's downfall and he was beheaded after being falsely accused of controlling the weather.

A mythago of Sopater now serves Abu Yaqub Al-Sijistani and he can be found roaming far and wide on errands from his master. Headless, he relies for vision and all other senses on two primitive ancestral bats, clinging to his arms or back, who use their echolocation to sense their surroundings, and dig their teeth and claws into his dead flesh to guide him. He cannot speak but gestures for communication with his hands and fingers. He rides on the back of the undead skeleton of a euoplocephalus - a six-metre long ankylosaur covered all over in armoured slabs of bone and huge tusk-spikes.

Sopater of Apamea

7th level cleric
28 hp, AC 12, AB -, Move 90

Sopater is blind and the guidance from his bats is not quick enough to allow him to function effectively in combat. Without the bats he can see nothing at all. They have 1hp each and are adept at hiding themselves from attacks (their AC is 14 but only a hit on a natural 20 will actually hit a bat if it is attached to Sopater's body; otherwise the blow hits Sopater).

He is undead and immune to normal attacks, cold-based attacks, sleep, charm, etc.

The Skeleton Euoplocephalus

HD 8, AC 20, AB +8, ATT Trample 1d6+2, Tail 2d6+2, Move 90
*AC 14 against bludgeoning weapons
*Tail attack can only strike backwards; trample attack can only strike forwards
*Can charge, in which case trample attack hits everything in its path automatically
*Always loses initiative

The skeleton euoplocephalus is unthinkingly and fanatically loyal to Al-Sijistani and hence Sopater. They give its existence meaning amidst the chaos of the catastrophe that befell it and the rest of its kind.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Sese-Mahuru-Bau's Singing Dogs

One day in his youth Sese-Mahuru-Bau heard haunting, whooping cries from high in the hill forests, where the rain clouds hung low in the sky. He asked a brother what those cries were, and the brother told him they were the howls of singing dogs. "If you are close enough to truly hear their song," the brother continued. "They will cast their spells on you."

As he grew up Sese-Mahuru-Bau learned that his brother was teasing and that the songs of the wild dogs were harmless. They could even be tamed and live alongside people. But the memories remained of those high soft melancholy calls echoing in rain swept jungle peaks. Sometimes he dreamed of them. In the mythago world of the crocodile, he conjured them from those memories of dreams to act as his hunting companions. They move around his forests like elemental ghost hounds composed of sound and shadow and cloud.

Sese-Mahuru-Bau's Singing Dogs

Packs of 2d6+6 hounds made of mist and shade. They come at dusk, or when it is raining, moving through the undergrowth like smoke on a breeze. They often come to accompany human hunters - especially their master, Sese-Mahuru-Bau. Their songs have strange and magical effects.

HD 1+1 AC 14 AB +3 ATT 1d6+1 (freezing bite)
*Ethereal - can only be harmed by magical weapons
*Their song acts as a spell. At a distance greater than 100 yards it has no effect. At closer than 100 yards, it has two effects. 

Bonding Song
The singing dogs call to bind themselves together in loyalty and love. A human hearing this song at close range becomes strongly focused on his comrades. A group of PCs gain the ability to "donate" AB points or hit points to each other when under its spell. But each round they must successfully save vs magic or attack/hinder a comrade on suspicion he is somehow undermining or betraying the "pack".

Sense Heightening Song
The singing dogs call to heighten their senses. A human hearing this song at close range finds his senses of hearing and smell greatly improved. He cannot be surprised, senses magic and anything concealed or secret, and is not reliant on sight (treat as having infravision in darkness). However, each round he must successfully save vs magic or be paralysed by indecision because his senses are flooded and overwhelmed, and unable to act that round.

Mournful Song
The singing dogs call to grieve for a lost companion or simply through melancholy contemplation. A human hearing this song at close range is given a sensation of transcendant understanding of his own place in the universe; he automatically makes all saving throws successfully. However, it might also make him lethargic or morose. The player should roll a d6 alongside any other dice roll made. On a roll of 1-4 on this dice, the other dice roll fails automatically.