Wednesday 30 August 2017

Living Treasures and Human Capital

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

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

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

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

Saturday 26 August 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People - Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 25 August 2017

Every Studio Ghibli Film I Have Seen Reviewed in One Sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Dragon Body Snatchers of Vesper Autumnale

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 August 2017

You Are the Modern Inklings

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

I love you guys.

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

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

Thursday 17 August 2017

What Might Have Been

From a very recent biography of Tolkien by Raymond Edwards:

"In the late 1960s, the Beatles were keen to make a version of The Lord of the Rings, with the four of them playing Gollum, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Tolkien, who detested the group as a whole, and the bumptious John Lennon in particular, was furiously opposed; they did not secure the rights."

I am guessing:

Gandalf - George
Frodo - Paul
Ringo - Sam
John - Gollum

Paul I am sure would have insisted on being Frodo, and really George has to be Gandalf. The other two are tough ones.

Yoko could have been Wormtongue.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - Draft World Map

I took a few minutes to do this earlier today, using Hex Kit. What can be done in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea is pretty impressive. This is by no means final or illustrative of the flavour of the art, but it's certainly more evocative than what I could draw or come up with using other hex mapping software.

Monday 14 August 2017

Practice Makes Perfect(ly Nice)

How to think about practising and role playing?

Well, what does it mean to be good at an RPG?  Basically, it means that, by your presence at the table, other people have a good time. As the DM you create a setup and run it so that the players have a good time. And as a player, by your actions, being proactive and thoughtful, you make it so that the DM and other players enjoy themselves.

Creating a detailed and intricate campaign setting means nothing if the players don't enjoy interacting with it. Getting your PC to level 20 doesn't matter if you're an arsehole and stop being invited to play.

So practice in the context of RPGs isn't really about getting good at the skills involved - doing voices, lateral thinking, puzzle solving, drawing maps, whatever - although those things all help. Instead, it's about being a better person. More engaged, more considerate, more amiable, more interesting and interested.

That's a good recommendation to take part in a hobby if ever there was one.

Friday 11 August 2017

The Thrown Object

As we speak I am sitting here watching the javelin competition at this year's athletics World Championships. The distances the guys get are, it goes without saying, impressive - over 90 metres at their furthest. To achieve this they take a huge run-up and practically launch themselves along with the javelin, sometimes literally diving forward through the air after the throw. The result isn't particularly accurate in any sense. The javelin lands somewhere broadly in front of the thrower in a 30 degree or so arc, pinioning itself into the turf with what you imagine is a satisfying 'pock' sound several seconds after it's left his hand.

Put it this way - javelin throwers would have a really hard time hitting individual targets if they were using their skills in anger.

Compare this with a cricket fielder going for a run out. Usually he's moving at pace, has to reach to the ground and pick up the ball which is also moving at pace, and then take a shot at a few slivers of wood at an acute angle under severe time pressure. They don't always hit the target but they can be extremely accurate.

(Cue gratuitous 1990s cricket clips featuring Jonty Rhodes below.)

What I'm trying to get at is: accurate throwing is a matter of chucking small dense items at stationary targets. A cricketer has a reasonable chance of hitting the stumps because they're not moving.

Does it make sense to say that thrown objects in D&D only hit if the target is stationary, i.e. surprised? Perhaps not - we've all been in the situation as a kid where your friend is about to throw something at you from a few paces away and you know that you're likely to be hit however much you might duck and dive. But it might make sense to come up with a thrown object house rule:

Thrown Objects House Rule

Standard ranges for thrown objects/weapons only apply where the target is stationary. Otherwise, the effective range of all thrown objects is 5 yards.

Thursday 10 August 2017

Being Creative While Being Busy

A while ago in the comments somebody asked me to write a post about how I manage to juggle work and family commitments while also making RPG material. The pat answer is "with great difficulty" but the long answer deserves more than that. While not wanting to hold myself out as being an expert or guru of any kind - I can barely tie my own shoelaces - here are my tips for staying creative while being busy.

  • Quit social media except for what's necessary for work or you have some special overriding good reason (I use G+ to keep up to date with the RPG world, for example), leave your phone in your pocket or bag unless it's ringing, and don't surf the internet unless you have a specific reason for it. I am not perfect at following this advice, but I am working on it and gradually improving; I haven't been on Facebook for six months and am close to deleting my account, and I deleted my Twitter account ages ago. I don't know anything about Instagram or Snapchat and I have no intention of ever doing so. I am also planning to switch to a dumb phone soon. Cutting down on internet use frees up huge wide vistas of time stretching out before you as far as the eye can see. You might think you miss it when it's gone. Trust me, you don't. 
  • By a similar token, control your email use. The best way to do this is not to check emails until noon. This gives you a productive distraction-free morning, but you can do something similar in the evening, giving yourself free time to do creative things when you get home from work.
  • Get disciplined about leisure time. On your death bed you're not going to regret the fact you didn't watch enough TV. I don't live the lifestyle of a monk but I don't touch boxed sets with a barge pole. I watch a lot of sport but that's the kind of thing you can have on in the background while you do something else.
  • Do a little bit of something every day. It doesn't matter what it is or even if it's just writing a sentence or two - force yourself. You can find time. If you take a break for a day or two you lose momentum surprisingly easily.
  • Take time to think. This is related to the first bullet point, but freeing yourself from your phone is great for this. I spend quite a lot of time on the train while commuting, or sitting in a cafe, or waiting for my wife to do something or other, just sort of gazing about myself. I get lots of ideas for things that way. 
  • If you have a baby, you basically have to tough things out at times. If I'm at home I can work on something while my wife and the kid have a nap, for example. It means I don't get to take a nap myself but it's worth the sacrifice. 

I hope that's helpful and that the person who asked sees this (I can't remember which post the comment was on and Blogger doesn't provide a way to search comments).

Tuesday 8 August 2017

A Phenomenology of Playing a Character

When playing a character in a role playing game, my consciousness tends to operate across a number of different phases of association with the character and the events that are taking place in our shared imaginings:

The Dissociated Phase. Here, my consciousness is more or less entirely abstract from what my PC is notionally 'doing', and I am hardly thinking about him at all - I am in the game, but just listening to what else is going on as an interested observer. It's as though my consciousness is standing outside the 'body' of the PC and is ready to re-inhabit it when required (it seems strange to speak in those terms, because of course the PC doesn't have a body at all, but that's the most intuitive way of describing it). Typically, this is the phase my consciousness is operating on when my PC isn't actually involved in doing anything and the spotlight is elsewhere. It's fairly uncommon, because even in those moments my consciousness is usually in the Mind's-Eye Phase (see below).

The Mind's-Eye Phase. Here, I am picturing what is going on, the scene that is being described, and my PC's place in it, in my mind's eye as though it is play or film taking place there and I am watching it as a third party. This can take place whether my PC is directly involved in what's happening or not. The association between my consciousness and the PC doesn't really have any emotional content except the kind of emotional content I get watching sport or TV. It is quite common - perhaps the most time is spent in this phase.

The Immersed Phase. Here, my consciousness is immersed in what is happening in the game. It would be wrong to suggest that this is like my consciousness merging with that of the PC, or changing in any way. It is still my consciousness and I am feeling what I probably would feel if I was in the position the PC is in. So, for example, the maybe the DM is describing the appearance of a beholder in a particularly evocative way and it is so immersive that I can actually feel a sense of impending doom. This usually happens at least once a session when something exciting is happening or during a heated in-character conversation or something like that.

The Identification Phase. This is the extremely rare occurrence that I actually feel as though my consciousness has - at least to a degree - merged with that of the PC and experiencing events not as myself but as the character and in way that is qualitatively different to how I would experience it myself. This phase is very rarely entered (much less than once per session).

The Mountain Dew Phase. Here, I am completely disengaged and fiddling with the dice, looking for something to eat, eyeing up the waitress, and not really paying attention to what is going on.

Monday 7 August 2017

Where's Wally? (or "Waldo") and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

Readers of this blog are familiar with the fantasy genre and all of its thoroughfares and highways, as well as its dark alleyways and nooks and crannies. You know your way, like everybody, to Tolkien and Martin, Brooks and Goodkind, Donaldson and Jordan. You also know how to get off the beaten track and find Bellairs, Bunch and Dunsany. But are you familiar with what goes on outside the city gates, in the places which don't appear on the maps at all?

I'm not talking about the kind of fantasy literature that exists outside of the fantasy section of the book shop because it isn't marketed that way (Attwood, Calvino, Borges). I'm talking about fantasy works that truly live in the shadows, away from the gaze of the experts, in old children's books, board games, card games and boys' own comics, all of which can be far richer sources of inspiration than what you might find recommended to you on Goodreads. This tends to be because this style of fantasy - what I am going to call the shadow fantasy genre - is not created for fantasy fans or people who are knowledgeable about the genre, meaning the creators have considerable license to let their imaginations run riot. 

I know of no better example than Where's Wally? The Fantastic Journey. In the first couple of Where's Wally? books Wally is just wandering around like a tourist in real-world locations or else appearing at various historical events. But as the series go on things get strange as the creator, Martin Handford, starts to go off piste. In "The Great Ball Game Players" four teams seem locked in an endless competition to throw each other's balls down a bottomless hole. In "The Ferocious Red Dwarfs" a pseudo-Chinese army battles against, well, a load of ferocious red dwarfs. In "The Battling Monks" two orders of holy men representing fire and water wage eternal war against each other. And in "The Knights of the Magic Flag", well, this happens:

These creations do seem to owe something to established fantasy fiction and also to fairy tales (there is an Arabian Nights style scene in this book, as well as one that seems to pastiche D&D, complete with fire-breathing dragons lurking in tunnels being pursued by incompetent "hunters"). But the freedom of creating a picture book for kids, and the lack of any sort of requirement to appeal to hard-bitten fantasy fans, means that Handford can just throw different elements around and see what sticks. "So there is this pseudo-Chinese empire. And it is under attack from red dwarfs," is not interesting enough to be the plot of a fantasy novel, but it doesn't need to be - it's practically just free association, but quite productive as a result. You could make a D&D campaign out of that easily.

Video games can have this quality too, of course - in fact they may be the most obvious location of shadow fantasy works. Just look at Zelda, Mario, or the Final Fantasy series. But more traditional games shouldn't be overlooked. When I was a kid I remember spending a lot of time playing fantasy top trumps with this set - check out the "orc", the "elemental", the "vampire", the "golem" and the "fool"; what's the implied setting, there? It isn't D&D, is it? Those pictures seem self-evidently to have been painted by somebody who knew a little bit about the fantasy genre, but not much, and comes up with something that is in my view not just charming but also really quite intriguing and unique. 

The shadow fantasy genre - keep your eye out for it. It can be found in the strangest of places.