Wednesday 25 April 2018

After a War

There is a sub-genre of fiction (detective fiction usually) which is set in the aftermath of a war. A nonexhaustive list of this includes films such as The Third Man, Three Kings, The Good German, and books such as Tokyo Year Zero (which is execrable - I feel duty bound to warn you not to read it if you're considering it), the De Luca trilogy, the Bernie Gunther series, and I suppose A Song of Ice and Fire and those Steven Erikson books if you want to stretch things a little.

As a setting for fiction that kind of background works, because everything is up for grabs. The normal rules don't apply. Somebody has taken society in both hands and shaken it to pieces like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing and now the constituent pixels are trying to find their way together again. The out-and-out chaos and totality of conflict itself has passed, but events take place against an unsettled backdrop which is intrinsically interesting as a result. It's plausible that people are going missing, settling scores, stealing things, breaking up or getting back together, and all the other stuff of good fiction, in large quantities.

A post-war environment also makes great campaign setting material for similar reasons. Red dragons have just swept through the land burning random settlements on their way somewhere else. Gibberlings have just invaded and fucked everyone over before throwing themselves into the sea en masse. A devastating plague of russet mold which almost emptied the land has just receded. The storm giant overlords have recently been overthrown and the men of Fantasyworldland have thrown off their shackles. And so on and so forth. In that kind of setting, the sandbox almost creates itself: everywhere they look, there's a plot hook for the PCs to get involved in or just a ruin to loot or explore.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Some Servitors in the Unremembered City

The levels of artistry which the Naacals once reached in their engineering of automata might seem almost godlike to the crude intellect of 17th century man. They became so skilled that the prosaic goal of efficiency came to seem to them almost quaint: at the zenith of their prowess, they came to prize only aesthetic innovation and sheer eccentricity, and it is the servitors from that era - beautiful, twisted, and strange - which today roam the plazas and avenues of the Unremembered City.

Tiger Lily: Something resembling a huge, bulbous orange-black flower, standing man-high on its spindly stalk, with fronds emanating downwards from its "head" like tentacles. From them it emits clouds of tiny razor-sharp disc-like spores, each no bigger than a grain of sand, which swarm through the air and carve or cut solid objects - including, where necessary, human flesh. HD 2, AC 6, #ATT Special, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Emits spores. It has 1d4+5 fronds, each of which can emit one cloud of spores (the process taking one round). Each spore cloud moves at 90 and can: 1 - Slice flesh (each spore simply cutting the skin at random, doing 1d3 hp damage automatically without the need for a 'to hit' roll), 2 - Clog lungs (the spore cloud entering through the nose and mouth to lacerate the respiratory tract from within - the victim can avoid this by covering the nose and mouth if forewarned, but otherwise suffers 1d6 hp damage automatically), 3 - Blind (the victim can avoid this by covering the eyes of forewarned, but is otherwise blinded - temporarily for 1d6 days, or permanently if the spore cloud can successively attack for 3 rounds in a row). Spore clouds do not regenerate and must return to the host within 6 rounds or the spore lose power and fall to the ground inert.

Porcelain Mule: A white-green ceramic quadrupedal form with a long, narrow, expressionless face like a horse's skull. If given a burden and a destination to carry it to, it will perform the task with remorseless and relentless energy; otherwise it stands inert awaiting instructions which nowadays rarely come. If a non-Naacal approaches it emits a foul, piercing bray in the manner of an outraged ungulate. HD 3+3, AC 4, #ATT 1 (trample), DMG 1d4, Move 180.
*If a non-Naacal human approaches within 20 yards, the Porcelain Mule will bray; it is never surprised and does this automatically. Anyone within 20 yards is deafened for 1d6 days (1d3 hours on a successful save versus poison), and any living thing within the vicinity will be put on the alert. Roll 1d4 times on the random encounter table to see how many things, or groups of things, come to investigate (arriving 1d10 minutes apart).

Cat With Cobra: Two automata perfectly crafted to resemble their respective inspirations. The first is the kind of cat the Naacals favour - short-snouted and long-limbed like a caracal. The reproduction is perfect, down to each individual silicon hair and whisker. It is accompanied everywhere by an Egyptian cobra, whose every individual scale was hand-crafted. Once created to assassinate political rivals, these servitors have become outmoded by the death of politics in the Unremembered City; now they simply do the only things they understand, which are to hunt and kill indiscriminately. The cat and cobra have the same stats: HD 1+1, AC 3, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 150.
*Always surprise opponents unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*The snake strikes to paralyse (no save is permitted; the effects last 1d6 days); the cat then automatically dispatches the victim with a bite to the neck if it is able to get within striking range. Having killed once, they flee and will not kill for the remainder of the day.

Dweller in the Reeds: A diminutive humanoid shape, thigh-high on a man, made of a thick emerald-green gel into which have been pressed small slats of jade, like lamellar. It lurks in gardens, parks and other green spaces, cultivating the plants which the Naacals favour and ruthlessly exterminating those they do not. Its fingers are made of narrow points of jade so sharp that they can sever tree branches like butter and so gracile they can carve decorative hieroglyphics and pictograms into the smallest and most delicate of flower petals. They defend their gardens tenaciously if they are disturbed or threatened; otherwise they are harmless. HD 1+1, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Always surprise opponents due to camouflage unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*Does 1d3 damage per attack but the attacks are of sharpness and directed against the legs.
*If able to attack the face of an opponent, its attacks permanently blind if hitting successfully.
*If struck to cause damage by a pierced weapon, the weapon sticks in the gel of its body 50% of the time - it can only be tugged free if the Dweller is inert or killed.

Padfoot: Something resembling both a tree-frog and an ibis. Four-legged, man-sized, with soft amphibian skin and splaying feet perfect for climbing and treading across ponds full of lily-pads, but with a black feathered head and downward-curving scimitar of a beak. In times past it was used as a spy: able to move in perfect silence, climb vertical walls, walk or swim across waterways, and probe with its beak. It was deliberately imbued with a curiosity which still enlivens it. It follows intruders at a safe distance, watching, until distracted or somehow given the slip. Anything it sees it will report if asked by a Naacal. HD 2, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4, Move 150.
*Always surprises opponents due to silence and stealth.
*Climbs vertical and smooth walls (and can even move upside down across ceilings).
*Swims perfectly.
*Exudes greasy toxins from its skin; if touched with a bare hand (when dead or alive) it causes a sickening illness which has an onset of 1d3 hours and causes complete paralysis for a week (on a failed save versus poison) or the equivalent of a slow spell for a week (on a successful save). The grease is visible on close inspection. If the toxin is ingested it causes death within 1d6 minutes; no save is permitted.

Pthalo Hound
: A pile of deep, intense blue powder, bound together and animated so that resembles a stalking canine. It is completely featureless except for its brilliant hue. An artistic endeavour which once amused some forgotten Naacal engineer, it never had any purpose except the aesthetic. If touched, it collapses back into its constituent powder, which sticks and stains indelibly. HD *, AC *, #ATT *, DMG *, Move 180.
*When touched, it immediately disintegrates. Roll a d8 or d4 to determine wind direction. Enough of the powder will blow in that direction for 1d6 turns, to a distance of 30 yards, to cause permanent blue stains on any living thing or object in its path. These stains can never be removed, even by a wish spell. The remaining powder lies in a pile and can be gathered if desired.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Life in the Unremembered City

The Unremembered City bears that name because, in all of the worlds inside the crocodile's mind, it is the only place which is made not of the stuff of memory, but of the real world. Every grain of sand comprising the island on which it sits; every pebble making up its walls, columns and plazas; every blade of grass and flower; and every fleck of paint or crumb of gold leaf which decorates it, was brought there physically by the Naacals in the Age of Discovery and imbued with magic to ensure that the crocodile does not remember it. Unlike anywhere else within its mind, the Unremembered City is not malleable and does not give rise to refractions. It remains.

At first glance, the Unremembered City is like no city anywhere. It does not have houses, or apparently dwellings of any kind: it is a place of plazas, wide open spaces, separated from each other by low walls. Some of the plazas are gardens thick with vegetation; others are starkly empty, made only of vast plain flagstones, baked by the sun. Towering over them stand thin, high pyramids, and geometrically-shaped mounds of earth on which stand colonnades and open-walled belvederes and pavilions, carved from black or white stone and decorated with pictographs of gold or silver leaf. It resembles not so much a settlement as a gathering of monuments, like the life's work of the world's greatest architects brought together in one place - which, of course, is what it is, or once was.

The Naacals living in the Unremembered City do not build houses because they do not have need of them: the last time any of them chose to marry or have children is now so long ago that none of them can remember it, and they cast aside material concerns even longer ago than that; they have no individual property to protect. When it rains, they shelter under a nearby colonnade or pavilion; at night, they seek privacy wherever they fancy, since their population has now dwindled to such an extent that much of the city lies empty for most of the time. The rest of their days, they roam where they will, sometimes coming together to sing, to dance, or to make love, as the mood takes them, but at other times sitting each alone and in silence, contemplating the passage of time and wondering about what meaning life can have when it is infinitely long.

The Naacals who remain in the Unremembered City are impossibly old, and their proclivities accentuate the natural conservatism that comes with age: the few who remain are the least enterprising of their race. Any of their brethren who had any curiosity about life and any desire to live it left long ago to explore the infinite worlds of the crocodile's mind and find their fortunes within it - and their descendants live there still. What is left is the rump: those who were too cowardly, feeble and dull to leave when they were young, and who have grown ever more cowardly, feeble and dull with every passing moment since. Their ancient husk-like figures - untouched by age but somehow bent and twisted by time nonetheless - haunt it like ghosts.

But this in no way means the Unremembered City is not a place for adventure. Far from it. Naacal treasures and technological artifacts are everywhere - lying largely abandoned by the inhabitants of the City, who long ago considered themselves to have reached the pinnacle of achievement in the arts, philosophy, and science, and lost interest in those pursuits as a result. Their riches and powerful technologies are available, then, to those who would come to the City and take them - and as a consequence, agents of the Seven are often abroad in its plazas and walkways, on the lookout for tools they can bring home to their masters to further their ends. And at the same time, the servitors of the Naacals have not decayed at all in their faculties since their creation, and these many different automata - guardians, sentinels, and others besides - are as active as they have ever been, protecting the shadows of the civilization which once created them. That is to say, great wealth and power awaits explorers of the Unremembered City, but they will meet competition - and hostility - if they want to get it.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Touching Alignment Languages with a Barge Pole

One way to think of alignment languages is to think of them as a kind of slang or jargon - a special manner of speaking which people of certain classes or interest groups start to develop.

I was thinking about this earlier today while attending an academic conference at one of the UK's most elite "old school" universities. I won't mention which university or the subject, but it was one of those instances in which an ordinary person would be fully justified in leveling against academics the accusation that we are all ivory-tower-dwelling, clean-fingernailed, over-educated, lily-livered fantasists who ought to go out and get a real job rather than sponging off the state to support our meaningless, divorced-from-reality "scholarship". At various times, such ordinary people would come in to the hall to deliver coffee or sandwiches or croissants or whatever. And whenever I did so, I thought to myself, "They must be listening to this and wondering what on earth we are talking about." Academicspeak is in a sense a bit like what an alignment language might be like: the words are intelligible to anybody, but they are used in such a way to make the content of a conversation inscrutable to outsiders.

Hobbies are like this too: listen to two people talk about a genre of music you don't know about, or an art movement you've never heard of, or some obscure interest like koi carp, and you'll find it hard to follow the conversation because of its special vocabulary and subject matter. There is even something approaching this phenomenon in political discussions. The conversations between people who are united in the same political persuasion tend to have their own cadences, their own in-jokes and nods/winks and reference points, which will leave others cold or nonplussed.

This is really, I think, a sensible way to think of alignment languages. But it's also a bit boring and, more importantly, isn't really true to the source material: alignment languages aren't described as being jargons. They're described as actual languages of a sort (comprised of "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions", as the RC puts it) which, in a sense, transcend all borders, racial differences, and geographical features: if you're lawful evil, you can communicate with all lawful evil creatures even if you don't share a common spoken language.

What to make of this? It implies certain things which are very difficult to conceptualise or imagine working in reality:

1) Alignment is something which has a known existence within the game world itself: you know what alignments are, and you know what alignment you are. It's not just a shorthand way to describe character traits. It's a real phenomenon.
2) Once you change alignment, you stop understanding the previous alignment language and start understanding a different one.
3) You should be able to look at two people having a discussion in an alignment language that isn't your own, and know that they are conversing in their alignment language (because suddenly starting to use "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions" to chat to that hobgoblin must make it pretty obvious).
4) If you could see somebody speaking in their alignment language, and if you knew the alignment of the other party to the conversation, you could guess the first person's alignment. If A is speaking in an alignment language to a hobgoblin, you know that A is lawful evil.

And even setting that to one side, there's also the question: what do the "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions" look like? Apart from sounding vaguely dirty, there isn't a great deal of information there. Maybe Chaotic Evil involves maniacal a-rhythmic dancing, while Lawful Neutral is a highly circumscribed set of deliberate gestures which must be performed perfectly in order for the meaning to be communicated. Maybe Neutral Evil involves blood-letting and pain.

The notion that alignment is something which people in D&D worlds actually believe is something that needs further analysis. Today, having spent so long listening to ivory tower academic nonsense, I'm incapable of doing so, so the most you're getting out of me is this half-formed and somewhat half-arsed blog entry.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Magicians as Billionaires

High-level magic-users, if the basic assumptions of a standard D&D setting held true, would be the equivalent of the modern world's billionaire class. With the ability to travel across continents and summon powerful servants on a whim, and with entire rooms full of magical item bling at their fingertips, they would have much more in common with each other than anybody else - a bit like how, if you take the average super-rich Brazilian, South African, Indian, South Korean, Australian and Canadian and put them in a room they will seem more similar to each other than they will to their own typical countrymen. 

This could very well be how the common tongue got started. Globe-trotting members of super-rich elites need their lingua francas. For our world, it's English. For a D&D world, it's the common tongue; a dialect created my magic-users from across the planet to communicate with each other, which has filtered down to the hoi polloi because people who like to think they're upwardly mobile all want to speak it. 

It could also be why wherever you go everybody seem to be using the same spells. Super-rich people on Earth all go to the same sorts of parties, listen to the same sorts of music, take the same sorts of drugs, wear the same fashion brands. High-level magicians in D&D land are the same: one of them comes up with a new spell and suddenly everybody else has to have it. Certain brands, like Mordenkainen, Leomund, or Bigby, are all the rage at different times. And every so often somebody finds a charming little spell created by some obscure tribe, orc shaman, or hobgoblin witch and turns up at the next feast to show it off, and within a year everybody's using it - just as some Hollywood star will start eating Burmese street food or whatever one day and it becomes (literally) the flavour of the month.

It's also surely why high-level magic-users all live in megadungeons full of traps and guardians. Your average multi-billionaire has pads in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo, his villa in Sao Paolo, his getaway in Sorrento, and all that, but the place he really relaxes is his secret hideaway - his private island in the Philippines; his ranch in Patagonia; his estate in the Scottish Highlands. And he competes furiously with his peers to build the best, biggest, most beautiful or unusual of the lot. If they could, you can be absolutely sure they'd have a manticore guarding the entrance, poisonous gas traps everywhere, and a tribe of vegepygmy slaves. 

Monday 9 April 2018

Incomplete List of "You Couldn't Make Them Up" Village Names in Lincolnshire and East Anglia

Chapel St Leonards
Mavis Enderby
Old Bolingbroke
Wood Enderby
Market Rasen
Potterhanworth Booths
Tumby Woodside
Ashby Puerorum
Deeping St Nicholas
Quadring Eaudike
Parson Drove
Thorney Toll
Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen
Marshland St James
Burnham Overy
Brancaster Staithe
Old Leake
Leake Common Side
Anton's Gowt
Holland Fen
Burton Pedwardine
Little Plumpstead
Whimpwell Green
Barton Turf
Houghton St Giles
Langley Street
Framingham Piget
Caistor St Edmund
California (!)
Hobland Hall
St Olaves
Weasenham All Saints
Wood Dalling
Skeyton Corner
Great Snoring
Ivy Todd
Cockley Cley
Black Street
Bruisyard Street
Wetherup Street
Lower Street
Barking Tye
Hitcham Causeway
Butley High Corner
North Cove
Ilkesthall St Margaret
Silverley's Green
Pixey Green
Stoke Ash
Thornham Magma
Thornham Parva
Maypole Green
Cove Bottom
Friday Street
Wicker Street Green
Santon Downham
Rockland All Saints
Saxtead Little Green