Thursday 30 March 2017

The Labourers Under the Volcano

Here in the humid shade of an active volcano which billows smoke across the sky, labourers work on a grand project. Their proximate aim: to divert the water from a fresh nearby spring into a dead parched river bed on the other side of a chasm, and hence to replenish a dying lake. Their ultimate goal: the restoration of natural order. These are creations of al-Sijistani's imagination, making his vision real.

Regular earthquakes and semi-regular eruptions from the volcano make the going almost Sisyphean. A channel has been dug from the spring down to the chasm, where it is intended the water will flow across an aqueduct which will lead to the dead river. The instability of the ground, the clouds of dust and ash, and the frequent raining of pebbles and debris, often call work to a halt; occasionally a serious quake or pyroclastic flow restores the status quo ante.

Roll a 1d10 when the PCs first arrive. If the result is 1-6 the labourers are currently working on the aqueduct. On a roll of 7-9 work has been halted and the labourers are struggling with conditions – repairing work after a recent tremor; hiding from falling rocks; or waiting glumly for a period of low visibility to pass. On a roll of 10 work has been completely destroyed in a sudden disaster and the labourers are contemplating starting all over again.

The labourers are early mammals from the crocodile's memories. Large quadrupeds, with thick muscular limbs and small unintelligent eyes, who tug rocks and tree trunks, and shovel dirt. They are goaded, ordered around, and sometimes aided by smaller, dextrous genet-like creatures which the crocodile remembers as faster and more skilful than they really were. They manipulate objects with great agility and move with lightning speed.

Big labourer: HD 5+2, AB +4, AC 14, ATT 1d6 rear-up front leg kicks/2d4+2 trample (on charge), Move 120

Small labourer: HD 1-1 AB +2, AC 16, ATT 1d3 bite, Move 150
*Can blink 1/day

There are 18 big labourers each with a team of 3 small labourers.

The labourers are guarded by 8 bipedal avian dinosaur hunters, roughly man-sized. They are covered in red feathers and have long stiff yellow tails.

Guards: HD 2+1, AB +4, AC 16, ATT 1d4 bite/1d3x2 claws, Move 180

The whole project is overseen by three mythago servants of al-Sijistani: the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’. These three men, known mainly to al-Sijistani only for attempting to reconcile the religion of the book with the thought of Plato, were at the periphery of his imagination: he had heard that one is a man of action, one an orator, and one a thinker. That is how he has created them.

The Cappadocian Fathers

Each of the Cappadocian Fathers appears as a bald man in robes with a long beard, as al-Sijistani imagines all saints of the religion of the book.

The Man of Action
The Man of Action always acts first in combat and does not need to roll for initiative. He can also act again at the end of every round, after all others have acted – he can either move or carry out an attack, activate a magic item, etc. He is a 5th level fighter and carries a holy staff which he can use to call lightning once per day.

The Orator
The Orator’s voice possesses powerful magic. He can use it to charm person three times per day, cause fear three times per day, and issue a command three times per day. He is a 0-level human and carries a book of prayers which acts as a continual sanctuary spell if the Orator is reading aloud from it.

The Thinker

The Thinker ruminates on the nature of the universe and has gained such insights that he is able to expand the power of his mind beyond his own brain. He can deploy clairvoyance, clairaudience, and ESP three times per day, and can also cause images and sounces to appear in the minds of others (improved phantasmal force and audible glamer) three times per day. 

Tuesday 28 March 2017

20,000 Nerds Under the G (Plus)

If you read this blog regularly the chances are you have already seen this post. It is an effort to "Map the OSR", as the title suggests.

A subsidiary question, and one which interests me, is the size of it. A figure of 10,000-20,000 is given as a guess, but there is of course no way of knowing if that is at all accurate or not. Apart from anything else it all depends on the definition you want to use; does being "into OSR stuff" mean you have bought a product? That you read 3+ blogs that are about "OSR stuff"? Impossible to say and depends on arbitrary decisions of the person making the calculation. So in a sense it is a pointless question to ask.

But late modernity is characterised by nothing more than misleading and foolish attempts at quantifying phenomena that can't really be quantified, so let's not let that stop us.

I am going to define "into OSR stuff" as "having played LotFP, DCC, Swords & Wizardry or LL more than three times, and/or having played a TSR D&D variant in the last year more than three times, having abandoned it for a period of more than 5 years".

How many people are actively "into OSR stuff" on the internet, first of all?

The big OSR luminaries (Zak S, James Raggi, Kevin Crawford, Patrick S, etc.) tend to have in the region of 1,000-4,000 followers on G+. The OSR community has 4,966 members at the most recent count. Swords & Wizardry 1,572. Labyrinth Lord 1,439. There is likely to be huge overlaps between these groups, (although of course not everybody is going to be in one) so I would put an upper limit of around 5-6,000 people active on G+ who are into OSR stuff.

G+ is not the be-all and end-all, of course. It is used disproportionately highly by gamers in comparison to other demographics (who barely ever even think of it at all), and it is hugely influential amongst OSR types because it seems to have a way of sucking them in like the proverbial flies to shit honey. But it is probably still only used by a large minority rather than a majority.

What about forums? Dragonsfoot, probably the biggest, has 10,372 members as of this date. There can be expected to be some overlap with G+, though my general sense is not a huge amount - they seem like pretty different crowds. And many of those people are not going to be active. Throw in a few more thousand potentials from odd74 and K&KA put together - again, some of whom will also use Dragonsfoot and/or G+ - and we can suck a finger and stick it in the air and say that this increases the scope to around 14,000 people on the internet who are into OSR stuff. That is, around 5-6,000 on G+, and around 8,000 more on grognardish forums once you take into account overlaps with G+ usage.

You can then throw in 1,127 members of the LotFP forum (again, big overlaps with G+, Dragonsfoot, etc.), and other dribs and drabs here and there (around 100-ish members on the S&W forum, for instance). Then it gets yet more nebulous when it comes to blog readership. It feels rather like pulling my pants down in the middle of the street to give you a glimpse behind the curtain in this way, but my readership generally plateaus at around 1,500-2,000 per post. I would never suggest that my blog is big - middling really when compared to some others - so I suspect there are some out there that get 5,000, 10,000 even. But again, there will be a lot of overlap with G+ and forum usage. Sucking a different finger and sticking it into the air, let's say the scope increases to something like 17,000 if you include people who exclusively read the blogs and don't go on G+ or forums.

You can then add in people who are into RPG stuff online exclusively through the use of reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but I think this group must be tiny - most of people who actively use other social media to discuss OSR games will be included in the above groupings.

The number of people who are into OSR stuff on the internet is not going to reflect the true total, though, because as we all know it is usually only DMs who go online and discuss games, buy game products, and so on, and DMs are always going to be a minority of gamers. Maybe a ratio of 1 DM to 3 players? Making the scope of people who are "into OSR stuff" by my definition about 68,000?


- It's all bollocks because it's based on semi-informed guesswork, but we know that anyway.
- It's English-language specific. There will be loads of other-language forums and blogs where people are into OSR stuff.
- The information is basically valueless, because it doesn't affect anything.
- You will have your own definition of "being into OSR stuff".

Still, 68,000 worldwide in the English language is my rough guess, so there.

Monday 27 March 2017

A Hubristic, Misty and False Review

Three products I have read recently (ish) and very much enjoyed, reviewed for your edification. BE EDIFIED.

I think of Hubris as being the quintessence of a modern OSR product. It is hackable and customisable. It is weird and owes much (much) more to Lovecraft and Warhammer than it does to Tolkien. It has the kind of production values that once could only have been dreamed of for a DIY product. Above all, it is a book in which the author's voice and vision are completely undiluted. This is very clearly Mike Evans' creation. It's what he wanted, and it's what he's written. This is a lot of what makes it so enjoyable and endearing (perhaps an odd adjective to use in a game supplement containing a character class called 'Murder Machine') - the enthusiasm and energy the author brings to the table.

What do you get out of Hubris? A big, fat, plentiful and generous-spirited book that has everything in it from new classes to random spell-book generators to lists of gods ("The Stillborn Unwanted Child" is a particular favourite and also pretty much encapsulates the turned-to-11 nature of the setting) to huge swatches of useful tables (covering diseases, "A Vial of...?", "What are these strange and ominous ruins?" and much more besides). There is barely a page that does not have a random table on it - this is a book which takes the virtues of customisability and hackability to entirely new levels. 

It is also a testament to the importance of tone and personality. In a sense Hubris is a kitchen sink setting. There is a frozen waste with frost giants. There is an island called "Fetid Corpse Island". There is a vampire realm built inside the burrow of a giant worm. You can play as an alchemist or bird-man illusionist. You can worship The Corpulent One, and you can also worship Set. You can get weird mutations. There is almost no restraint in terms of what has gone into the book. But it is very tonally unified book because while it is stuffed to the gills with different concepts, nothing is out of place - Mike's personality stitches it all together. 

Somewhere - on G+ I think - I called Misty Isles of the Eld the best realised OSR product I've read. I don't want to appear as though I am over-egging it, but I would now go further than that; I actually have a hard time thinking of a better D&D adventure module, released at any time. At least, across all the measures that really matter - playability, readability, coherence, ease of use, I-would-never-have-thought-of-this-myself-ness. (I am coining that as a descriptive noun.) 

Aesthetics are important here, of course. How can one describe the visual style of this book? It's unique in an RPG product, at least in recent years, but it has a strange kind of familiarity to it nonetheless - like a discovered artifact from 1969 if only RPGs had been invented in the 30s. Like a mixture of the Yellow Submarine, Star Trek TOS, Buck Rogers and Dan Dare. The visuals fit seamlessly with the content, which is like distilled 60/70s pulp - Moorcock and Vance's weird vat-bred dream-child.

There is little else to say except that what is most impressive about the book is how playable it is. Reading it, you not only immediately want to run it, but you very quickly also know how to run it. It is seriously impressive stuff.

False Readings is a book which couldn't have existed prior to about 2010. It is a book of fiction, much of it half-finished and experimental, which was written by an RPG nerd and published by another RPG nerd who met him online, and printed on demand. Fiction can actually be produced that way now. It shows how much book publishing has changed and is changing.

How to describe the fiction in it? Well, if you know Patrick you would say it is very Patrick, but that probably doesn't help a great deal. Let's give it a go:
  • It is speculative fiction, in the broadest possible sense. Speculative fiction is usually a way of saying "fantasy and SF" without having to say the hideous unclean words "fantasy and SF". Here it means fiction that is really, truly speculative - as in "Here's an idea nobody has ever though of - I'm going to write it."
  • By the same token, it is wonderfully ambitious. The first story is written in duelling second-person narratives, one in prose and the other poetry. It is like something written by Gertrude Stein, but actually readable. It has a play in it which is also kind of a game, and which I don't really understand. Many of the stories are great ideas which were tried out but couldn't quite get finished - including, at the end, the beginning of something which looks like it could rival A Song of Ice and Fire if it got past the first chapter. Reading through it, you are confronted at every turn by the author shooting as absolutely high as he can possibly go. This makes it very inspiring.
  • It is...odd. You've heard of people talking about weird fiction. I want to coin a phrase to describe the genre of this book, and I want to call it odd fiction. It has a story in it about knights who ride snails. It has choose-your-own-adventure poetry.
  • Surprising. I recently read Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man - a collection of his short stories. It is a little hit-and-miss, but I derived a great amount of pleasure from reading it and, with each story, wondering what on earth Ray had dreamed up. Some writers - Lovecraft, let's say, as a classic example - are very predictable. You know broadly what is going to happen in every story. Ray Bradbury is the opposite; you have no idea what the next story will be like. False Readings is like this. 
It is a really interesting and strange experience to read, and what more can you ask for, really? (Except for Patrick to finish "Thieves in the Empire of Glass" and "The Death of the King of Ants".) 

Thursday 23 March 2017

Undead Dinosaurs

Some undead dinosaurs from the Memories of Ruin, the section of Behind Gently Smiling Jaws set in the aftermath of the cataclysm which brought the dinosaur age to an end.

Quetzalcoautlus Wraiths

The Quetzalcouatlus was a huge, leathery flyer, with a wingspan 15 metres from tip to tip and a long powerful head that was almost entirely jaw. It soared the ancient blue skies in search of fish, feeding grounds, or carcasses, sharp-eyed and leisurely. In fields it gathered in small flocks and crawled in an ungainly fashion amidst the vegetation, on all fours, its wings curled up about its body, searching for lizards or insects to snatch.

Mere wraiths of them remained after the cataclysm. Tied to the ground and unable to fly. Wisp-like black vaporous shapes, thin and stretched and featureless like silhouettes, repeating what they did in life with the concentration of the dead. Scrabbling about, vast elongated heads twisting and rotating as if searching, searching, ever searching. As fragile and ephemeral looking as smoke, dancing and twisting in the wind while somehow retaining their shape. 

HD 6+6, AC 18*, ATT Special, Move 150
*Immune to non-magical and non-silver attacks.
*Dark tendrils of death emerge from their willowy forms when living things approach. If these tendrils touch, the target loses his or her life force (1d6 points of CON per touch). No ‘to hit’ roll is required; the tendrils touch automatically anything within 10 feet. Once CON reaches 2 or less, the subject dies. CON loss cannot be recovered.
*Dissipated entirely by magical wind. 

Ghast Alamosaurs

Driven to starving insanity by lack of food in the long dark winter in which all around them died – their ancient herds reduced to stumbling ruins and finally corpses – some vegetarian beasts turned in desperation to eating flesh. Their teeth and digestive systems were unsuited for it, but they attempted it nonetheless, falling on the carcasses of dead children, relatives and other members of the herd and gobbling what sustenance they could from their withered remnants. Sure enough, this sustained them and prolonged their lives; but their unconscious bargain with Death changed them. Their hunger for meat came to crowd out their hunger for anything else – indeed, they became insatiable for it. And the more they ate of it, the more they transformed, becoming ever more sinuous and lean and savage. Eventually, Death gave them another bargain: eternal life in return for eternal hunger and eternal feeding. This they accepted with the willing primal instinct of all beasts presented with food.

They retain the form of a sauropod, but thin and wizened into sinew and muscle. They stand 20 yards long from the tip of the tail to the top of the head, perched on a long snake-like neck. Their eyes are yellow and jaundiced; their skins are black. They hunt for meat like a predator despite their herbivorous ancestry, relying on lumbering power rather than ambush, stamina or intelligence.

HD 9, AC 14, AB +8, ATT Bite 1d6/Trample 3d6 (after charge), Move 150
*Will stop to devour meat, corpses, and so on - cannot resist carrion.
*Always initially attempt to attack by charging, but due to momentum must move full rate for two rounds if doing so - doing 3d6 damage to anything in the way. 

Maiasaur Wights

When the catastrophe came, the will of parents to protect and care for young was so strong that in some cases it surpassed death. Maiasaur mothers with unhatched eggs in nests are a particular example. While the eggs of such undead maiasaurs will never hatch, and the bodies of the young – cold and stiff – will never see life return, the mothers persist as wights, mournful sentinels over their progeny, unable to comprehend eternity but condemned by their protective instincts to experience it. They were proud hadrasaurids once: ten yards at least from snout to tail tip, able to walk on two legs or four, herbivorous but with dangerously muscular tails, and possessing a delicate gentle compassion in their relations. Now they traipse wearily and slowly around their dead and desiccated nests, half-skeletal and half-mummified by parching heat, dust and time – leathery, wrinkled, with skin stretched tight over bone. They guard the nests with the relentlessness of despair.

HD 7+7, AC 14, AB +5, ATT Tail Swipe 1d8+4, Move 180
*What is left of their organs is irrelevant to them, but damage to their bodily structure will impair them. Are immune to piercing weapons and take only half damage from slashing weapons, but suffer double damage from bludgeoning weapons.
*Maiasaur wight mothers will follow stolen eggs forever and attack anybody approaching their nests.
*Smashing all eggs in a nest (generally 2d6 in number) will cause the mother to expire over the course of d6 rounds as the protective instinct maintaining its existence dissipates.
*Eggs can hatch if a Raise the Dead spell is cast on them. Baby maiasaurs will loyally follow the first living thing they see, and can be trained to perform simple tasks. They have 1 HD and are noncombatants until the age of three. Resurrecting eggs will cause the mother to expire in blessed relief.

Monday 20 March 2017

The Bloke in a Costume Problem and its Remedy

In the comments on the last post, Zak made the point that, well, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness is a thing which exists, and it surely does. It got me thinking about refining the point I was trying to make, which is basically this: animal fantasy needs to be more than just blokes wearing costumes. In the TMNT cartoons and film (though I've not seen the most recent iterations), being a mutant turtle is essentially cosmetic. Donatello and Raphael and chums are four American teenagers who live in a sewer and fight baddies. They can go inside their shells: this is the sole concession made to the notion that these are turtle people. 

Imaginative cowardice seems like a slightly harsh way of putting this approach, but that's what it is, to me. Thinking of a concept and then completely failing to bother following through on any of its implications even slightly.

I want to call this the "Bloke in a Costume" problem: rendering a potentially powerfully imaginative choice a merely cosmetic one.

What's the antidote to the bloke in a costume problem? Being more imaginative, of course. How do you do that? Study the world and learn from it. Watch animal behaviour in particular and think about it. Empathise. Some pointers:

I was stroking a murderer, a savage. Gos knew that might had always been right, that the Vikings slew the last two kings of Northumbria because the Gokstad ship could come so strongly in from sea, that William had cavalry at Hastings as Edward III had archers on the wings at Crecy, that the press barons of the year I was writing about were right about re-armament...Hitler and Mussolini, Gos and irreclaimable villein kestrel, seals that preyed on salmon and salmon that preyed on herrings that preyed on plankton that preyed on something else: these knew that God had given a law in which only one thing was right, the energy to live by blood, and to procreate.

Unfortunate, dark and immoral goshawk: I had myself been subjected to his brutality. In the beak he was not formidable, but in the talons there was death. He would slay a rabbit in his grip, by merely crushing its skull. Once, when he thought I was going to take his food away from him, he had struck my bare fore-finger. It had been a Bank of England apprehension, a painful impotence, a Come-you-here arrest by all-powerful police - I should only have hurt myself horribly by trying to get away, and was already being hurt. He had held the glove with one talon, the bare fore-finger with the other, so tightly that only one method of escape had been open to me, and that had been to tear him in half. In the process I should have pulled all the flesh off the finger, like stripping the rubber off an insulated wire. Not from courage, but from necessity, I had stood quiet and unprotesting, speaking to him calmly until he let go.

A homicidal maniac: but now he was enjoying to be stroked.

-From The Goshawk, by TH White

What stories fail to convey is the violent greed of the mole, which scuttles along its tunnels eating the worms, bugs and grubs that fall haplessly in. There is nothing cute about a mole tunnel. It is a vast pipeline trap. And for a gentleman dressed in a velvet smoking jacket, mole is the most violent diner; he bites off the worm's head, then with his claws squeezes out any earth left in the worm, before sucking it down like spaghetti...

-From Meadowland, by John Lewis-Stempel

The life of an Adelie penguin is one of the most unchristian and successful in the world. The penguin which went in for being a true believer would never stand the ghost of a chance. Watch them go to bathe. Some fifty or sixty agitated birds are gathered upon the ice-foot, peering over the edge, telling one another how nice it will be, and what a good dinner they are going to have. But this is all swank: they are really worried by a horrid suspicion that a sea-leopard is waiting to eat the first to dive. The really noble bird, according to our theories, would say, "I will go first and if I am killed I shall at any rate have died unselfishly, sacrificing my life for my companies"; and in time all the most noble birds would be dead. What they really do is to try and persuade a companion of weaker mind to plunge: failing this, they hastily pass a conscription act and push him over. And then - bang, helter-skelter, in go all the rest.

-From The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

If you can create a race of goshawk-people who will willingly inflict pain and violence on somebody ten times bigger just to make a point; if you can create a race of mole-people who are very gentile, well-dressed and wise one minute and insatiably greedy assassins the next; if you can imagine the many ways which intelligent penguins would dream up to betray their acquaintances and profit from their deaths, and much more besides, then you will be a man, my son.

Friday 17 March 2017

The Secret Game Within 5th Edition

Page through the free "Basic" DMG for 5th edition put out by Wizards of the Coast, and you notice something odd: it has full stats for all kinds of small animals that, surely, nobody in their right mind would need stats for. Some examples include bats, cats, crabs (yes - really), frogs, octopodes, owls, rats, weasels.... Now, I can just about imagine a scenario in which you might wants the stats for an owl if it was a wizard's familiar going for a PC's eyes, but do you really need to know that a bat has a STR of 2, that a crab does bludgeoning damage of 1, that a sea horse can breathe underwater, or that a frog has "no effective attacks" (tell that to a fly) but can jump quite far? These aren't giant versions of these animals, you understand. They're the actual normal-sized ones.

Apparently we do need them. That must be because there is a secret game going on underneath 5th edition's epic fantasy exterior: animal fantasy. They're setting us up for Redwall: The RPG. Get your sea horse paladins, crab druids, frog fighters, and weasel clerics at the ready - not in the same party though. That might pose logistical difficulties.

Animal fantasy is not well developed as a genre. Let's survey the lay of the land. What's out there? The aforementioned Redwall books (mice, badgers, hares, other stalwarts of the English countryside). Dunston Wood (moles). Watership Down (rabbits). Mouse Guard (which I believe may be something to do with mice). Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger books (which I haven't actually read - something about otters?). The Rats of NIMH books. Most if not quite all of it involving pleasant familiar mammals who act either entirely like humans or with a certain character trait exaggerated (rats are sneaky, mice are ironically brave, and so forth). The Dunston Wood books and Watership Down make certain attempts to get inside the heads of moles and rabbits respectively, but those seem like outliers for that reason.

Where are the animal fantasy settings in mangrove swamps, African savannahs, Patagonian wilderness, New Guinea rainforest, Canadian tundra, Siberian taiga? While we're on the topic of crabs with their bludgeoning damage of 1, picture a society of crabs in a mangrove swamp. Several times a day the tide comes in and out and fundamentally changes everything. Big predators - fish, monkeys, etc., might strike at any moment. There are other mud dwellers (mud skippers, insects and so on) who could be allies, rivals, or something else. What would an intelligent society of such crabs look like, and construct? What is crab magic like? Do intelligent crab societies actually have druids?

I was joking about the secret game in 5th edition, but I am serious about the potential for animal fantasy to be a billion times more interesting than it is. Good fantasy and science fiction often involves taking a set of weird and crazy assumptions and then treating them as though they are absolutely serious and following through on them accordingly. You can boil this down to something even more essential and basic and say that good speculative fiction typically involves postulating a set of strange elementary principles and asking: what next? Hence: all the animals on the African savannah are as intelligent as humans and can also do magic. What next? 

Tuesday 14 March 2017

A Window Into the Future (or the project which will result in my untimely death)

I recently sent an overview of my latest project to a collaborator. It has gone through a few stages of evolution but is now in its "mature phase". I thought I'd share the key points on the blog.

There is a crocodile which has been alive since the Carboniferous era. These days it mostly sleeps and dreams about the past. Behind Gently Smiling Jaws is a setting which takes place in those dreams.

The dream world was discovered hundreds of thousands of years ago by the Naacals. These are a race of human beings who lived on a continent called Mu (which has now sunk). Mu stretched from Mexico in the East all the way across the Pacific to India in the West, and encompassed Indonesia and New Guinea. The Naacals were the ancestors of the Mayas and also of the first civilizations to take root in India. They are now gone, except for those who migrated into the crocodile's dream world, which they believed to be a paradise. They founded a city in the middle of it, in a vast ocean, and they live there still: the PCs are Naacals.

The dream world is made of mythago stuff which will warp and transmute under the influence of powerful psyches. The Naacals discovered a way to avoid this, though the method is now forgotten. But seven powerful interlopers have subsequently also independently entered the crocodile's mind, and their puissant mental energies have fundamentally changed the character of entire regions of the dream world.

There are seven of these regions, each being a volume of the book.

Vol 1 concerns The Infinite City. This is the crocodile's memory of an ancient city which pre-dated even the Naacals - a bit like Atlantis except it existed long before even Atlantis did. It was a city of canals (somewhat like Venice) and built of warm-coloured sandstone (pink, orange, etc.). The crocodile remembers it as a kind of jumbled up Escher-like vision of crazy architecture broken up into chunks by a huge network of canals. It is now home to a Portuguese conquistador called Jorge de Menezez who has created a city-state in the middle of it. He dreams of using this as a base to raise an army by which to go back to the real world and conquer it and become an emperor. But because his character is militarist and expansionist, the entire Infinite City is like that now as well, so it exists in a state of continual warfare between bitter and implacable rival factions.

Vol 2 concerns The Dreamtime of Man. This is the crocodile's memories of the era when human beings first evolved - it's populated by its reptilian ideas about aquatic apes, Australopithecus, etc. The geography is lots of rivers, lots of savannah, lots of forest. It is now the home of Pape Jan, who is the man the English call Prester John - a King of Ethiopia who founds his way into the crocodile's dream world. He has built a fortress there and wants to covert all the aquatic apes and hominids to Christianity. But his lands have become riven by sectarianism, and Pape Jan has also brought with him lots of ideas about King Solomon's demons, which he has unwittingly made real in the mythago stuff of the dream world. So as well as Pape Jan there are demon princes now living there too. 

Vol 3 concerns The Memories of Ruin. This is the crocodile's memories of the aftermath of the meteor strike which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Volcanoes, earthquakes, crevasses, floods, and dried up lakes and rivers are everywhere - as well as dying dinosaurs, ghost dinosaurs, dinosaur liches, and so forth. (The avian dinosaurs and mammals are thriving, though.) It is now the home of Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, a pre-Islamic Arab neoplatonist philosopher who wants peace and tranquility to reign. He has built a madrassah in which to teach and meditate. He has studied extensively in the histories of Greek, Roman and Near Eastern philosophy and many of the figures from these history books appear in the mythago stuff in his realm.

Vol 4 concerns The Ziggurats Under the Ocean. This is the crocodile's memories of weird structures built by aliens on the bottom of a shallow sea in a now-extinct ocean millions of years ago. It is now the home of Anak Wungsu, a Balinese Hindu trader of great wealth. Because he is obsessed with wealth, commerce and trade, those desires have infected the aliens who comprise the mythago stuff in his memory realm, so the inhabitants of the ziggurats obsessively trade with, and steal from, each other. 

Vol 5 concerns The Dreams of Ice. This is the crocodile's memories of an ice age during which it hibernated in a burrow underground. It was dimly aware of the ice around it and occasionally woke for brief periods to feed. During that time it saw pack ice, glaciers and ice bergs, and black rocky mountains here and there sticking up into the sky. This realm is the home of Sese-Mahuru-Bau, a New Guinea native hunter who came into the crocodile's mind looking for legendary beasts to slay and bring to his prospective father-in-law as a dowry. While this region is mostly comprised of ice and glaciers and snow at the base level, here and there are mountains, and on the mountains is where Sese-Mahuru-Bau's presence has transformed the mythago stuff into New Guinea-style rainforests. Each mountain is shrouded in low-lying cloud, and above the cloud zone is jungle, inhabited by the legendary creatures Sese-Mahuru-Bau imagines for his prey.

Vol 6 concerns The Wide and Peaceful Sea. These are the crocodile's pleasant memories of drifting across the warm Pacific Ocean long ago. Here and there are atolls and islands with palm trees. It is home to Xu Fu, a Chinese sorceror who came to the crocodile's mind looking for the Elixir of Eternal Life, which he has heard is on a paradise mountain known as Mount Penglai. He has created a version of this mountain in the mythago stuff from his own psyche and populated it with people and creatures of Chinese folklore and legend. While the ocean here and the atoll and islands are of the Pacific, Mount Penglai itself (rising up from the ocean a bit like Mount Fuji on its own island) has the feel of Chinese legend - cedar forests, fog, delicate pagodas and so on.

Vol 7 concerns The Primordial Swamp. These are the crocodile's memories of the swamp into which it was born, in the Carboniferous era hundreds of millions of years ago. It is a very fecund, hot, humid, green swamp of ferns and primitive trees. There are other strange crocodilians here, as well as amphibian creatures, dimetrodons and so on. It is also now home to Ebu Gogo. She is the last remnant of a hominid people who survived into the human era living on an island in the Philippines but were all killed by Spanish conquistadors. She fled to the crocodile's mind in order to mother a new tribe. She does this by breeding with the crocodile's memories of ancient amphibian things to create half-human, half-mythago-stuff hybrids who proliferate and mutate in the infinite swamp.

Monday 13 March 2017

I Got a Bad Desire

Occasionally I write a post that I half-finish but have to put to one side as a draft because I can't figure out where I'm going with it (I've been sitting on half a post called "The Secret Game Within 5th Edition" for about 18 months now - the second half will come to me eventually I suppose.)

One I've had going since last summer is "If You Go Down to the Woods Today". Here it is:

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.

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 nowhere. And they are alive.

And yet on the other hand, as he also puts it:

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.  
Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.  
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.  
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 in real life is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

I finally have the second half. It involves fire-fighting. Check out this post by Cedric: It's about elven fire-fighters trying to protect a forest - a nice idea in itself. But follow the link in the comments to Patrick's interview with Dungeon Smash about forest fires (or just click right there) - and look at the pictures and read the words and tell me you wouldn't want to play in a fantasy forest fire-fighter campaign. Not only putting out fires but carrying out rescues, fighting fire-starting invaders, and maintaining peace between forest rivals.

PCs protecting things is another field of potential campaigning which I don't think has been well-explored in published settings. This is largely because of Zak's old Superman Sandbox Problem. I have thought about that problem - namely that rogues (or villains) are typically inherently proactive whereas heroes/protectors are typically inherently reactive - quite a bit down the years, and really there's no way round it: protectors are inherently reactive by definition. If there are no external threats there's nothing to protect, so the DM has to do a lot of work thinking up those threats, or have really good ways of randomly generating them, or be really good at improvising. Meanwhile the players don't have a massive amount of agency because they're just going to be sitting on their arses waiting to find out what the "threat of the week" is and then trying to defeat it.

There is no way around this, but there's no reason why it should stop anybody. So, just to riff on the idea a little: a potential response to the Superman Sandbox Problem is doubling-down on it. Forget thinking up different threats - the threat is always the same. There is a permanent fire in the forest. That's because fire spirits of various kinds are there (maybe ruled by an Efreeti?) and they intend to spread come what may - they have to. The PCs are locked in an eternal struggle with the forest fire, which constantly moves as the fire spirits shift resources; it also retreats from certain areas with the vagaries of weather, climate and also the actions of the fire-fighters. But it is never completely extinguished and often grows. This means that sometimes the PCs are working to head off the spread of the fire in a certain direction; sometimes they are rescuing the inhabitants of a threatened area; sometimes fighting insurgents; sometimes working in areas the fire has vacated to aid in restoration and regrowth, and so forth. You don't deal with the Superman Sandbox Problem; you embrace it.

Friday 10 March 2017

Fantastical Tone: The Hobbit or The Call of Cthulhu?

Not wishing to turn into Derrida all of a sudden, but you see binaries everywhere. Up and down, left and right, big and small, black and white, inside and out, tragic and comic... One of the first things every child learning an instrument discovers is that there are major and minor keys, with major being happy and minor being sad.

Tone matters. There are all kinds of fantasy books, of course, all kinds of settings. But if you were interested in that sort of thing, I think you could divide them between two tonal ancestors in the form of Tolkien and Lovecraft, or, more specifically The Hobbit and "Call of Cthulhu". Modern fantasy divides along those lines. 

The Hobbit is an optimistic book. And I don't just mean it has a happy ending. It has an optimistic disposition. It's important to take it in isolation from The Lord of the Rings, here: The Hobbit in its original form was not a book about saving the world. It is a book about an adventure. It's a book about fun. Breaking out of your shell and getting out there and seeing what's going on in exotic places you've never heard of. There is peril and sadness and death, but that's not going to detract from the underlying philosophy: the world is a good place once you get out of the front door. The Hobbit is composed in a major key.

"Call of Cthulhu" is a pessimistic story. It reveals a universe which is indifferent to us, and which is mainly best hidden; adventure in that world leads at best to insanity, and all it's really going to do for you is lift the veil on the fact that life is meaningless and there are lots of hideous unfathomable menaces out there. The universe is a bad, bad place. It's composed in a minor key.

Most if not all OSR settings draw on the "Call of Cthulhu" well much more than that of The Hobbit. Which is odd, when you think about it, because at the end of the day OSR gaming is all about adventure - hexcrawls and dungeon-delving and all that. Yet it is there, and it gives OSR games, I think, a distinctively arch and ironic character: the PCs may be adventuring, but they are basically either doing it for self-centered reasons (get gold and XP) or because they are half- or fully mad. Nobody sensible or normal would want to go adventuring in your average OSR setting because of all the potentially terrible things that could happen to you - the "adventure" is a test for the wits of the player framed by a general sense of wry humour and interest in what is happening as a disinterested observer. 

There is nothing wrong with this at all - my games are like that most of the time - but I think something that we (I'll include myself in this despite not really liking the "OSR" label) do pretty badly is a major-key, The Hobbit approach to world building and adventure: discovering amazing things, going to weird places, doing great things, for the sake of it. Not so much going into the megadungeon to try to gather wealth and see what fucked up situations the PCs get into, but going in search of the Elixir of Youth (or whatever) because it's a great excuse to see the world which the DM (or the random tables, or the boxed set) has created. 

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Can RPGs Be Cheery?

I went to an exhibition of the work of Fine Art degree students today. The art school in question being one of the highest-ranking in the country, the art on show was so high-brow it was above the hairline. Lots of videos and projectors, lots of experimentation with sound, lots of installations, lots of meaningless mumbo-jumbo written on pamphlets, essentially no painting.

As is often the case with contemporary art I left the exhibition feeling as though the art on show had been deliberately designed to be ugly, confusing, alienating, narcissistic and bleak; I always seem to leave the gallery after seeing a contemporary art exhibition feeling a bit worse than I did when I went in.

Why is this? I have no problem with conceptual art per se. The main problem is that the concepts on offer just aren't very uplifting or thoughtful. If there's a discernible message it always seems to be designed to chide and chastise you ("Isn't it terrible, viewer, that you are such an unconscious racist/misogynist/capitalist?"), and if there isn't then generally speaking it's all just very miserable - loud repetitive noises, low-quality crackly videos which are really difficult to follow, voice-overs which you can't quite hear properly, images of weird things in dark rooms, confessional stuff of the TMI variety. You typically walk out (this being in the UK) thinking, "Well, at least I didn't have to pay for that - except through my tax bill!"

It's easy to lower the mood and more difficult to raise it. And attempts to raise it are condemned to walk the finest of razor-sharp knife-edges, forever in danger of tipping over into the twee and irritating or the boring. Being unironically uplifting without being irritating or boring is seriously difficult - maybe the most difficult of all creative endeavours.

You see this problem with RPGs. It's easy to do bleak. (Name an OSR setting which isn't.) It's much harder to do cheerful. Almost all the examples of attempts at cheeriness that I can think of are either irritatingly twee (Blue Rose) or just not very interesting (Dragonlance, which mixes in plenty of twee also). A possible exception exists in the form of the BECMI sets. Their tone is reasonably earnest about representing an uplifting vision of heroic fantasy, and I think they manage overall not to be too twee (at least not enough to be irritating) while being pretty relentlessly fun.

Is it possible or even desirable for RPGs to be cheery? Usually, whatever the content or tone of the game, everybody has a good laugh during a session anyway. Still, the question remains - can having a positive, uplifting feel be made to work?

Tuesday 7 March 2017

New Class: The Naacal Warrior

The bored young dilettantes of the Unremembered City undertake all manner of activities with their unbounded leisure: dancing, playing sport, experimenting with mind-altering substances, engaging in sexual or intellectual pursuits of all possible varieties - and also fighting. War provides them with the excitement and risk which all the young openly or secretly crave.

But their warfare is highly ceremonial. It is subject to many careful circumscriptions and rules which are subject to complex negotiations before the fight. Naacal warfare, isolated within a lonely city marooned in the middle of a vast ocean, has become ritualised and complex. Killing in combat is considered vulgar, and open murder has accrued all manner of religious taboos; the taking of life must be done through a magical or religious ceremony rather than through the distasteful method of physical combat. War is a matter of capturing opponents to secure ransoms or sacrificial offerings, or merely to settle arguments.

Naacal Warrior
Naacal warriors are exceptionally skilled in the use of bolas, nets, clubs, lassos, whips, staffs and grappling. They have an additional +1 AB in those circumstances. They have a -2 penalty to their AB if using a weapon in combat which is typically used to kill (i.e. edged weapons, maces, etc.).
Naacal warriors are restricted from killing their enemies in combat by all manner of ancient taboos. If a Naacal warrior takes the life of a another being in combat, he considers himself cursed. From that point onwards, the player must roll a d20 alongside all other dice rolls. If the number on the additional d20 is 20, the 'main' dice roll automatically fails. If he takes another life in combat, the same applies but rolls of 19-20 on the additional d20 automatically negate the 'main' dice roll. If he takes another, rolls of 18-20 negate the 'main' result. And so forth. These effects are permanent. 
Nothing prohibits Naacal warriors executing captives once combat is over. They may also deploy magical and religious rituals to do so. By eating some of the flesh of an executed captive and carrying out other rituals (described by the player if desired) which take 1 hour, the Naacal warrior may either:  
a) 'Steal' a single spell which was in the memory of the executed captive, or a spell-like ability, randomly determined by the DM - it may be cast once whereupon it is forgotten forever; 
b) Adopt a single specified characteristic of the executed captive such as its language, voice, magical or elemental resistance, etc - this lasts for one day. 
Experience levels, AB and so forth are as a fighter in the main LoTFP rules. 

Friday 3 March 2017

How the World Was Formed

First, the Naacals discovered, in the ancient continent of Mu, that there was a portal into another reality. They called it The Navel. Through The Navel, they found oceans, mountains, forests, rivers, glaciers, volcanoes and deserts: a new verdant fertile world populated by creatures which had never existed in their own. They built a city there on an island in the middle of a vast sea. It was only hundreds of years later that they discovered what this new world was, or what it meant: they had found a pathway into the antique past through the memories of a being which had been alive at the dawn of creation. Realizing that they had found a world composed of memories, they called their city from that time onwards, "The Unremembered City", and the sea on which it floated, "The Remembered Ocean".

The Unremembered City prospered in that virgin memory-world, and its people grew fat and decadent. Gradually the Naacals living there stopped visiting the "real world" in the belief that it had grown staid and uninspiring. They had fallen in love with the infinite depth and variety in the vividness of the crocodile's dreams, and lost interest in the lives of their fellows who stayed behind on the continent of Mu. Eventually they decided that no more of the ignorant kinsfolk should be allowed to join them in The Unremembered City, and they closed The Navel for what they thought would be eternity.

But nothing lasts forever. The Naacals in The Unremembered City grew ever-more idle and hedonistic in their imaginary paradise, and their civilization slowly sank into decay. Over thousands of years they became ever more cruel and strange, and closed themselves off in their urban kingdom with its pyramids, gardens and plazas. Their horizons closed inwards, and they ceased crossing The Remembered Ocean or exploring the lands beyond it. Eons passed as they played, warred, laughed, and slept. The lands of the memory-world beyond The Remembered Ocean became ancient history, and the "real world" on the other side of the Navel a mere myth when it was spoken of at all.

The population of The Unremembered City had no idea, then, that in that "real world" the continent of Mu had mostly sunk beneath the ocean and their kinsfolk were long dispersed or disappeared. They did not know that the primordial reptile whose memory world they inhabited now lived in an isolated fragment of what had once been Mu. They did not know that new civilizations had grown up in the "real world" and colonised its every corner. They did not know that in their eons of introversion eternity had caught up with them.

So it came as a complete surprise one day to discover that some other people - humans, young and vigorous - had somehow found their way into their memory-world and begun to make it their own. Seven explorers, refugees, adventurers and thinkers, who had discovered "navels" of their own into the crocodile's mind. Seven of them who, while the people of The Unremembered City slumbered, had gradually conquered and transformed the untouched paradise of the lands surrounding The Remembered Ocean and made themselves kings and queens. Rulers whose emissaries were now landing on the shores of The Unremembered City and announcing themselves to the inbred, twisted princelings of what had once been the Naacals.

The first ruler is Sese-Mahuru-Bau, the hunter, who rules the dreams of ice.

The second ruler is Jorge de Menezez, the conqueror, who rules the infinite city.

The third ruler is Xu Fu, the wizard, who rules Mount Penglai in the middle of the great and peaceful sea.

The fourth is Abu-Yaqub Al-Sijistani, the philosopher, who rules the world of ruin,

The fifth is Pape Jan, the missionary, who rules the dreamtime of man.

The sixth is Anak Wungsu, the trader, who rules the ziggurats on the sea-bed.

The seventh is Ebu Gogo, the mother, who rules the primordial swamp.

The Naacals of The Unremembered City have found that they are no longer the exclusive owners of paradise.