Tuesday 12 December 2017

Audience Participation: A Table Without a Title

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 8 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 7 December 2017

War as a Globalising Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Mindfulness and Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 5 December 2017

The OSR as D&D Stuckists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 1 December 2017

Mythic Underworlds/Hells for Other Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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