Thursday 31 May 2018

The Brothers Squamous: Introduction and Key Themes

Once again, politics has reared its ugly head on G+ and the blogosphere. The only antidote, I feel, is for those of us sane ones who remain to Keep Calm and Carry On. To that end, a creative project. (Long term readers of the blog will know how appalling my track record is with this kind of thing. But whatever. Sooner or later one will stick.)

I have a folder on my desktop which is called "Current Projects". It has over a dozen subfolders. One of them is called "Three Green Dragons Dungeon". There is nothing in it except a .txt file called "Basic Idea".. Let's change that: I'm going to create this "Three Green Dragons Dungeon" through posts on the blog, little by little, drawing direct inspiration from this awe-inspiringly wonderful series of posts by Benoist on therpgsite. Now just try and stop me.

What is the "Three Green Dragons Dungeon"? Well, it's a dungeon created by three green dragons, duh. The "Basic Idea" .txt file reads as follows:

Dungeon on an island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island in the middle of a bigger lake.
Conceit is that three green dragons, all brothers, created a fortress there to house their treasure. 
Guarded by golems they created from wood, earth, mist, dawn light, noon light, evening light.
Then something happened and they went into a deep slumber. Over time new inhabitants moved in. But the golems are still there. And also the dragons.

Looking at this now, I instantly pick up a few broad themes that I would like to explore:

1) The number "three". There is a kind of interesting symmetry between the notion of a dungeon on the island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island in the middle of a lake, and the notion the dungeon is created by three brothers. (If I wanted to push that symmetry, there I suppose ought to be a dungeon on an island in the middle of a lake, which is on an island in the middle of a bigger lake, which is on an island in the middle of an even bigger lake.)

2) Rings. Islands on lakes on islands on lakes creates visions of concentric circles - at least in my head. This is something to be explored in the architecture of the dungeon. Also, dragons like rings.

3) Family. The dragons are three brothers. I like the idea of them as rivals. But I also wonder if another family member could be involved somewhere - a sister, or their mother?

4) "New inhabitants". I already feel like I know the tonal palette, here. It's Northern Europe; it's old school dragons like Smaug or St George's enemy; it's deep dark forests and brooding fjords and mountains; it's mist and rain; it's Celtic, Nordic and Saxon myth-inflected; it's fairy tales and folklore and bedtime stories - but it all has to be original. No straight lifting, and no orcs, goblins, dwarves or elves (at least as we understand them).

5) The golems. Again, we find echoes of the number three. The golems are made of wood, earth or mist; or of dawn light, noon light and evening light. Maybe each brother has purview over one element from the first of these trios and one from the second? Mist pairs nicely with dawn light, but other connections aren't readily apparent...

6) The nearest town. Why is it that I want it to be ruled by ettercaps? But I do. A silk-spun settlement with an ettercap queen, where human life is tolerated in the interests of trade - and in return for the occasional titbit of fresh, tasty human flesh.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Being Watched

Apparently, watching other people play D&D is a thing. It's growing in importance. In a sense, it's not difficult to see why: watching other people do things seems to be a hugely popular hobby nowadays. You can watch other people play video games, watch them drink whisky and eat food (this is big in South Korea, apparently), watch them draw or paint... And people do the watching in their millions. I think, if I wanted to play amateur sociologist for a second, that there is something linking the prevalence of online porn with that of these other forms of passive entertainment - clearly, there is something in our brains that makes us dangerously susceptible to vicariously enjoying fun things without having to go to the bother of doing it ourselves. 

(There seems something qualitatively different about watching people play a sport and watching them play D&D or have sex or drink whisky. I'm shit at rugby but I enjoy watching it. I can actually do all of the others.) 

It also isn't difficult to see why this is growing from a marketing point of view. Putting liveplays of D&D on youtube and doing nothing to discourage people from uploading such content themselves is a no-brainer for WotC. Of course that works as a form of marketing, and it's sort of amazing that nobody really thought of doing it properly until recently. 

Part of me welcomes this, even if the thought of watching other people play D&D generally brings me out in hives. When all's said and done, it's no different to watching TV, and I'd be a hypocrite if I said I never watched TV. And I would not disparage people who choose to do it, either as performer or audience. 

On the other hand, there's part of me, the fuddy-duddy Roger Scruton-reading part of me, that wants to assert that actually no, this is really fucking weird: watching other people play D&D is one of those fall-of-the-Roman-empire-style symptoms of civilisational decline - I can't think of much else that is more decadent and pointless, more of a waste of one's precious seconds on God's beautiful Earth, than watching other people play RPGs. At least the Romans got to have orgies and nice wine when they were allowing their civilisation to go to the dogs, for fuck's sake. 

But anyway. What is perhaps a more productive line of inquiry is: what happens to RPGs when they're performed in front of an audience - for the players and also the watchers? 

For the players, it seems to me that the urge to satisfy the audience must become overwhelming, and that this urge, if pursued, can't help but lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Instead of being about the game, the practice will end up being about making sure that the content is entertaining. That will inevitably, I think, lead to narrativist-style Dragonlance-ism and pre-plotted campaigns: the idea that the game will speak for itself and let story emerge organically will be seen as too much of a risk of becoming boring or not making sense. (At its worst, this will lead to widespread scripting, which was clearly going on in Titansgrave: The Whatsit of Thingummy.) There may be honourable exceptions. But I suspect the general trend will be in this direction. 

And that will, I think, in turn lead to a perpetuation of that style of play among the watchers. I don't think anybody could dispute the proposition that online porn has changed the way lots of people have sex. Sex is nowadays frequently performed, obliquely or explicitly, with reference to pornography. The same thing, it seems to me, will happen with any sort of activity that is widely watched. People will want to - God help them - emulate the kinds of things Will Wheaton and his ilk get up to on their liveplays. It will happen inevitably. It can't be stopped.

I could, King Canute-like, rage against the dying of the light and try to put some more "old school" liveplays up there on youtube myself, but I increasingly think that the best course of action for a neo-luddite like me is just to try my best not to know anything about that world, insofar as it's possible to do so, and do the diametric opposite: play in a physical space with actual people, roll dice, and write stuff on notebooks in pencil - and hope that I can find enough like-minded people to keep the flames of civilisation going... 

Monday 28 May 2018

To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn....

The OSR, such as it is, can be thought of as having been an exercise in archaeology: digging out the "real game" from the layers of dull earth piled on top of it over the eons - and discovering what it does well when performed in optimal conditions.

But there are still things that D&D does badly. One of them is the passing of time. Despite Gygax's famous admonition that you CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT, D&D tends to ignore the passing of years and seasons as an in-game phenomenon. As a result, D&D campaigns, even long-running ones, typically pay at best lip service to the notion that "it is winter" (or whatever) and basically only keep track of how many days are passing by in order to see how many hit points are healed or how far a distance is traveled. (This may also be why D&D campaigns are ludicrously sped-up and compressed when you really think about it: the amount of stuff that D&D PCs get done over the course of an in-game week or month is typically crazily vast.) There are exceptions, I am sure. But this has been my overwhelming experience.

A lot gets missed this way. For one thing, the rhythm of the seasons is intrinsically interesting and can lead to different types of adventure. Pendragon is obviously the forerunner in this regard, but the cycle of: downtime in winter/preparations in spring/proper adventuring in summer/girding-of-loins for winter in autumn presents all kinds of important and useful challenges which lead very quickly, I think, to many interesting alternative modes of play. The potential of these different modes have not yet really begun to be properly explored - what can you do to make spell research, social climbing, storing of food, training, long-term plotting and scheming, and so forth, more interesting and gameable?

But there are long-term cycles and changes too. Populations of animals peak and crash due to annual variations in the real world, and also because of long-term trends whose causes we can only guess at. (This May there have been greenfly everywhere in my local area - vast swarms of them, even in the city centre. Where have they come from? They weren't here in these numbers last year.) Why wouldn't the same thing happen with the populations of orcs, kobolds, mold men and manticores - assuming these beings fit into the natural ecology? There are different species of insects who are locked into a 13- or 17-year breeding cycle. What if that was true of goblins - or gargantua?

Finally, what would or could the passing of the seasons mean in a fantasy world? Maybe magic fluctuates in power or changes its effects altogether from season to season. Maybe in winter beings from the spirit world visit ours. Maybe in spring giants migrate. Maybe astrology is real.

Saturday 26 May 2018

Projects I Will Never Finish

A complete series of campaign books for all the Inner Planes

A Call of Cthulhu supplement for games set among Japanese immigrants in Latin America in the 1920s

The Book of Judges as a campaign setting

The PCs are insects - like arthropod Redwall

Portmeirion as an adventure site

The Tyne Valley painstakingly mapped and made into a hexcrawl

Herodotus' world recreated as a hexcrawl

Romans explore Kent; Celtic mythology is real

Stone Age Britain with Lovecraft entities

Licensed version of Mythago Wood

Chinese explorers in Kofun-era Japan

Wildlife photographers on alien planets

This list

Friday 25 May 2018

D&D and Doux Commerce: Alignment Rethought

Doux commerce is the notion that trade has a "sweetening" effect on human relationships: commerce brings about peace, because through it people get to know one another, cooperate, and become able to get what they want from each other without violence. It's a notion that's been around since the time of Adam Smith at least, and is at the root of the existence of the European Union, among other things.

What if amenability to peaceful exchange was at the root of D&D alignment? At one extreme are the genuinely selfless: the monk who has taken the vow of St Francis; the Buddhist priest who gives away all his possessions and lives by begging, and so on. A little bit further in and you have elves, who prefer to enter into relationships of exchange rather than violence if they can possibly help it. In the middle you have humans who are about as likely to engage in trade as war. Moving further towards the other extreme you have dwarves, who jealously guard their own possessions and do not trade them away even at an apparently fair price. Then you have orcs and goblins who prefer to steal or take by force. And then at the very opposite extreme are dragons, who zealously guard every last copper coin of their treasure hordes and never give any of their possessions away at any price.

It's not a matter of good and evil: ostensibly evil things (illithids, githyanki, ogre magi) may be generally more willing to give and take than ostensibly good ones (dwarves, sverfneblin, werebears). It's not about morality, per se. It's about whether, in a sense, you play well with others - whether you do so for selfish reasons or otherwise.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen

Well, it happened. I sat here quietly, like granddad sitting in his easy chair with a can of special brew and the TV remote, waiting to see if his ungrateful grandchildren remember his 80th birthday. And sure enough, the day came and went without even a card, let alone a phone call. None of you bastards noticed that the 17th of May 2018 was the ten year anniversary of this blog - I didn't even get one lousy congratulatory email. Was I eclipsed by the bloody royal wedding? Was that it? I refuse to believe that Monsters & Manuals Day 2018 wasn't the subject of at least one street party with purple and yellow bunting and free opium for all.

I jest. Yes, it was 10 years ago I started writing this blog: Saturday, 17th May, 2008. You can find the first entry here. I started with a pretentious, half-workable idea, and I like to think I set the tone very nicely for what followed: a decade of mostly pretentious half-workable ideas, during which time there has been:

  • 1,352 posts
  • 1,696,166 page views
  • Probably getting on for a billion broken promises about stuff I'd blog about/publish
  • One marriage
  • One baby
  • One massive natural disaster and the loss of most worldly possessions
  • A PhD
  • A move between countries
  • Shit loads of alcohol imbibed
  • Yoon-Suin

And lots else besides. Ten years is a long time. There's a scene in Magnolia that I often remember, where a character - an old man slowly dying - insists that "Life's not short - it's long". I know what he means when I look back over the last decade. I don't feel like it's a case of blink-and-you-miss-it. I feel like it's a veritable ocean away. In May 2008 I was living in Kawasaki city in Japan, working for a startup, usually packing in 12-14 hour days, doing very little in the way of creative projects, eating and drinking out almost every night, and living for the weekend. 

Fast-forward ten years and I am living in North East England, with a job that offers almost limitless flexibility, doing lots of creative things when I can in between looking after a baby girl and fulfilling husbandly duties (which, for those of you unmarried men out there, involves disappointing amounts of sex or romance and mostly doing stuff like taking the bins out, unblocking the plug hole in the bath, and mowing the lawn), living for the weekend because it means I'll have time to iron my shirts for the week ahead, and spending most evenings knackered on the sofa drinking 18 year old Glenlivet because one of the few things that improve with age are taste buds. You can pack a lot into a decade. Trust me.

What does the future hold? God knows. Blogging is hard when you've got other commitments, and having young children ratchets up the difficulty factor of everything exponentially. 2016/2017 were peak years for this blog in terms of page hits. 2017/2018 has seen a precipitous decline - most of the blame for which can be lain at my daughter's feet. I work every evening, more or less, on RPG stuff, but mostly that work is unseen as it is being ploughed into creating publishable material for different projects. The blog often doesn't get a look-in, sadly. 

Now, don't worry, I have no intention of quitting. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and it's become pretty much the longest-running single thing I've ever stuck at - that includes jobs and even careers. I'll still be writing Monsters & Manuals until the day Google pulls the plug on it (which in occasional dark moments I suspect of being only just around the corner). It might not always be what it once was. But then again - what is? 

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Fresh Water and the Lake as Dungeon

Yesterday I dredged the pond for blanket weed. In amongst each netful of juicy brown squelchy organic mess from the bottom - rotting vegetation, gooey mud, fibrous plantlife - I discovered a little treasure: dragonfly nymphs, dozens of them, each a few inches long, with angry murderous expressions on their faces at having been disturbed. It was amazing to thing that they had probably been down there for two years or so already, living out their lives with us on the surface completely ignorant of their very existence.

It got me thinking about fresh water - lakes, ponds, rivers - and how under-utilized it is as an environment for adventure in D&D. Undersea adventures, we know about, at least in theory if not in practice: we've all got our monstrous manuals brimming with sahuagin, locathah, aquatic elves and ixitxachitl. But under-lake ones?

Structurally, the under-lake adventure is similar to that of a dungeoncrawl. There is a deep, dark, Loch Ness-style body of water: murky and muddy and green. Beside it is a village. The villagers know that there are strange beings down there on the lake bottom. In fact, maybe they believe that down there on the lake bottom there is a gateway to hell. They fish on its surface, and sometimes they see things moving through the gloom. They say that there was once a city there, or a temple, or a castle, or all three, until the inhabitants wronged the gods and the valley was flooded. And so on and so on. And rather than simply strolling into the dungeon, the PCs can borrow a boat and dive into it - or just swim. All they need are a way to breathe underwater and something to weigh them down.

And what do they find down there? In a body of water the size of Loch Ness there could be entire ruined settlements, entire living settlements of whatever creatures are down there, cave systems burrowed into the lake bottom or sides, forests of weeds, chasms and ravines, miniature deserts of rock (not to mention a hundred different Nessies). Plenty of stuff to bring back to the surface for the enterprising D&D PC.

The logistical niceties are in a way what I like the most. How do you get heavy stuff up from the bottom of a lake? How do you make sure that when you leave the lake and come back, you going to end up at exactly the same location given how hard it is to judge where things are from the surface? How do you find your way around in the murky depths were visibility is only a couple of yards? How do you locate the body of a fallen comrade?

Saturday 19 May 2018

Poetry RPG Challenge

A friend introduced me to the 200 Word RPG Challenge. I quite like the idea as an example of constrained creativity, but it got me wondering whether 200 words was too much - and too banal a concept. Would it be possible to create the rules for an RPG in the form of a single haiku? The rule is that it has to be entirely complete and playable - no extra explanation allowed.

Here was my first attempt:

Roll a d-20
To do whatever you want
Higher is better

But there maybe isn't quite enough there (on its own, the haiku sort of implies you can do whatever you want automatically and the higher the dice roll the better the result, but there's no accounting for failure).

Another one:

Player and DM
Each roll a d-100
Compare the results

I quite like that one. Although, as above, it also requires a little bit of creative interpretation to tell that the idea is the player and DM both roll 1d100 and the player succeeds or fails accordingly, with the difference between the two scores affecting the extent of the success or failure.

A last effort along similar lines:

Success or failure?
Competing d6 results
Determine outcomes

This makes me wonder about other poetry-related RPG challenges. Can you come up with a complete ruleset in the form of a sonnet? How about a limerick?

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Recommendations: Bartok, Wolfe, Dixon, Huss

A few cultural artifacts I've been enjoying lately. The first is Bartok's music for the 1924 ballet "The Magnificent Mandarin". Here's the synopsis from wikipedia:

After an orchestral introduction depicting the chaos of the big city, the action begins in a room belonging to three tramps. They search their pockets and drawers for money, but find none. They then force a girl to stand by the window and attract passing men into the room. The girl begins a lockspiel — a "decoy game", or saucy dance. She first attracts a shabby old rake, who makes comical romantic gestures. The girl asks, "Got any money?" He replies, "Who needs money? All that matters is love." He begins to pursue the girl, growing more and more insistent until the tramps seize him and throw him out.  
The girl goes back to the window and performs a second lockspiel. This time she attracts a shy young man, who also has no money. He begins to dance with the girl. The dance grows more passionate, then the tramps jump him and throw him out too.  
The girl goes to the window again and begins her dance. The tramps and girl see a bizarre figure in the street, soon heard coming up the stairs. The tramps hide, and the figure, a Mandarin (wealthy Chinese man), stands immobile in the doorway. The tramps urge the girl to lure him closer. She begins another saucy dance, the Mandarin's passions slowly rising. Suddenly, he leaps up and embraces the girl. They struggle and she escapes; he begins to chase her. The tramps leap on him, strip him of his valuables, and attempt to suffocate him under pillows and blankets. However, he continues to stare at the girl. They stab him three times with a rusty sword; he almost falls, but throws himself again at the girl. The tramps grab him again and hang him from a lamp hook. The lamp falls, plunging the room into darkness, and the Mandarin's body begins to glow with an eerie blue-green light. The tramps and girl are terrified. Suddenly, the girl knows what they must do. She tells the tramps to release the Mandarin; they do. He leaps at the girl again, and this time she does not resist and they embrace. With the Mandarin's longing fulfilled, his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

LIKE. Here's a rendition with the score:

The second is Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Arete. I can't remember who it was who recommended these books to me in the comments to a post on this blog, but whoever it was - thank you. Soldier of the Mist was one of the best fantasy books I had read in years. Soldier of Arete is even better. I would scarcely have thought that could be possible. I could also have scarcely have thought it possible that I could respect Wolfe's work more than I did already, but this, to me, is next-level stuff: in fact, I'm just going to go straight ahead and right now give him the coveted Noisms Award for Best Current Living Writer. It's him. Don't disagree. You're wrong.

The third is Judson Huss. Somebody shared some of his work on G+. It is so far up my alley it is practically right at the end of it, with the biggest, fattest rats, oldest piles of rotting waste, and most well-stowed mob hits. I mean, look at this stuff. It's like Dali, Bruegel, Bosch and Escher put in a blender and given the slightest hint of essence of Larry Elmore:

The fourth and final is Dougal Dixon's After Man: A Zoology of the Future. I must declare an interest: Breakdown Press, who are publishing it, are people I am working with and I've gamed with one of the people who run it. That may colour my appreciation for the book, but I doubt it. I was a fan of Dougal Dixon's work anyway - his Complete Book of Dinousaurs and Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures are a huge inspiration for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - but again, this is sort of next-level stuff: what do you get when an expert on evolution and paleontology gets to speculate about the future of evolution? Well, stuff like this:

Goes up there with Mythago Wood, Jin Ping Mei and Herodotus's Histories in the list of "Books I want to make into campaign settings".

Friday 11 May 2018

Small is Beautiful

The virtue of smallness of scale has been a theme on this blog since days of yore (see herehereherehere and here). But the capacity of the real world to pack huge variety into tiny spaces still fascinates me.

Consider the Wrekinsets. A Dark Age Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdom within the kingdom of Mercia which was itself subdivided into sub-sub-kingdoms. You could quite easily walk up and down its length from north-south or east-west (assuming it roughly corresponds to modern Cheshire with some extras in Shropshire and Flintshire) in a couple of days if you meant it. And yet it was an entire kingdom of its own with further major political divisions within it.

Consider the Principality of Theodoro. A tiny Greek Orthodox statelet on the backside of the Crimean peninsula. The rump of the Empire of Trebizond, which was the rump of the Byzantine Empire, which was the rump of the Roman Empire. Look how teeny-tiny it was (it's the green bit):

My rough guess from squinting at scale maps of the Crimea is that the Principality of Theodoro was about 30 miles across, from east-west. Comfortably walkable in two days, if that. But with its own distinct political, social, legal systems; its own foreign policy; its own culture. (I love how wikipedia lists is population as comprising "Greeks, Crimean Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks, and other ethnic groups...." We like to imagine ourselves as living in diverse societies.)

Consider Wearside Jack. In the late 70s the West Yorkshire police were desperately searching for a serial killer (the "Yorkshire Ripper") when they received a series of letters and an audio message from somebody claiming to be the killer who later turned out to be a hoaxer. This man was clearly from Wearside (meaning the city of Sunderland and its environs) but dialectologists were able to place him far more precisely than that - as being from Castletown, an area within Sunderland which is little more than a few streets. In other words, the way he spoke was enough to place him in a geographical area of about a square mile or so.

Consider that Hilbre Island is only 11 acres in size but it has its own special sub-species of vole.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Emishi Knight

A fierce warrior from the personal war band of an Emishi lord. He is violent, powerful, and vengeful, covered in tattoos, with a thick beard, long hair, and black body hair on his chest, arms and back like a wild boar. Everywhere he goes, he rides on the back of a horse, which towers over the steeds of Yamato people, and he is ready to fight and die at the command of his lord or in the name of his own dignity.

HD 4-6 (1d3+3)
AC 4 (Hide armour [AC 7] and protective tattoos)
#ATT 2
DMG As weapon (spear or short sword) +2
*Has a steed with 3 HD and 2 attacks doing d3/d6 damage (bite and kick)
*His tattoos offer:
-Protection from Fire
-Jump if leaping
-Spider Climb if climbing
-Shocking Grasp if grabbing/grappling
-Water Breathing if submerged
*Like all Emishi, he can Speak With Animals at will and Charm Mammal once per day

Emishi knights always have three items of jewelry (randomly determined).

If met as a random encounter a solitary Emishi knight will be 1 - Carrying out a command under oath; 2 - Hunting; 3 - Defending his honour. Roll on the sub-tables below for more details:

Carrying out a command under oath:
1 - To rescue a woman kidnapped by another local Emishi tribe
2 - To track down and kill or capture an outlaw
3 - To kill a man-eating bear or wolf pack
4 - To recover a lost treasure stolen by an animal spirit
5 - To steal something from a wizard
6 - To investigate tales of mysterious travellers from the South

Hunting: the Emishi knight is 1 - Currently stalking prey; 2 - Carrying home a kill; 3 - Decides to stalk the PCs

Defending his honour:
1 - By challenging men he meets to wrestle
2 - By challenging men he meets to fight to the death
3 - By kidnapping a woman from another local Emishi tribe
4 - By climbing a mountain
5 - By exploring a cave
6 - By sailing across the sea to an uninhabited island

Thursday 3 May 2018

The Semi-Unique Monster

Monsters in RPGs tend to fall into one of two camps: the species and the unique. The tarrasque is a unique. Orcs are a species.

Creatures in children's TV programmes and books often fall in the middle-ground: they are semi-unique. There are four teletubbies. Are there more? It seems unlikely: they are a race unto themselves. In In the Night Garden, we encounter the tombliboos (three creatures who always seem to be kissing each other whenever I watch it), the pontipines (a family of ten tiny people with no feet), and the tittifers (a small group of hyper-real birds). They are each apparently a species in their own right. In the Clangers the titular creatures - weird pink things with long snouts - are a single family of beings who inhabit a hollow planet far away.

The reason for this is, of course, because children's stories are often about families, don't need bestiaries, and don't need to make any sort of particular sense - that's not the point. But nonetheless, I find the implied settings in which these semi-unique creatures live fascinating. Worlds in which a single family or a small group of similar beings can exist on its own, living on its own terms, without being part of a bigger whole.

In fantasy for grown-ups, the semi-unique monster takes on a slightly disturbing tenor that isn't present in children's stories. Isn't there something terrifying and horrible about the idea of being part of a group of half-a-dozen creatures who are all there is of your species? I don't mean because of the threat of extinction; I mean because however hard you search in life for a sympatico, a soul mate, somebody who truly understands you, well, this is it, the entire pool you have to draw from.

There's also something compelling, though I can't quite put my finger about what it is, in the idea of people in a D&D world being able to refer to an entire creature type, found nowhere else in the world except in their little local 6-mile hex, as a collective noun. "Watch out if you are travelling through the Old Forest tonight. That's when the pontipines come out." Is it just because it harks back to the kind of thing I might have read in the tales of my childhood? Very probably, but I like it, all the same. 

Wednesday 2 May 2018

The Death of the Archetype and the Character as Brand

Film is often said to be a "literalising medium" and the modern Hollywood machine in particular has no respect for expressionism, symbolism, or the surreal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-powerful juggernaut that is the Origin Story: it's not enough for a popular character - be it Wolverine, Superman, Batman, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, Spock, Malificent, etc. - to simply stand fully-formed, larger-than-life, as you find him; no, there has to be a cultural product detailing where he came from. Not even dream-characters in Alice in Wonderland are safe: even the Mad Hatter gets an Origin Story of sorts nowadays, because he isn't allowed to simply exist - the logic of film demands he be from somewhere and that we understand why he is mad. 

It isn't hard to understand why this is: a character like Han Solo is no longer just the roguish smuggler who everybody prefers to Luke. He's a brand in his own right, or is readily commodified as such, and why should an opportunity to spin him into a money-maker be spurned? The easiest way of doing that is by making a film providing the definitive explanation as to where he came from: nerds will queue in droves to see it and non-nerds know enough about Han Solo to want to find out. Never mind that the power of a character like Han Solo comes from the fact that he is not so much a character as an archetype, and that's the point (if you listen to and believe George Lucas, it was even his point when he wrote the original films). No, he must be rendered prosaic so he can be better monetized. 

What do we lose from this? Not a great deal, I suppose, but we lose something: the notion that fiction actually has primordial, intuitive significance that gets at the structures underlying our common humanity and which can't be reduced to just words on a page or images on a film. Han Solo as a human being, who was a child once and who is the way he is because he never learned to love/became embittered by a personal tragedy/whatever the Origin Story is, will be a less dramatically compelling one than Han Solo who simply is. The attempt to make him seem a more realistic and plausible character will deprive him of his potential to mean something else. 

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Naacal Dancers in the Dreams of Ice

Groups of Naacals came to the Dreams of Ice long ago in order to dance. There, with no music to disturb the purity of their movements except the breath of the wind and the crunching and creaking of the ice and snow; with nothing to influence their thoughts or feelings except vistas of endless white; and with the extremity of the cold forcing them to put themselves through ever-greater exertions in the name of their art, they believed that they could ascend to pinnacles of physical expression higher than they could possibly climb in the Unremembered City.

Whether any of them have achieved this is a matter of opinion. Over the eons each group has, in its isolation, been through schism, revolution, counter-revolution, renaissance, evolution, regression, and return-to-roots, each on many occasions, and has developed innumerable eccentricities and formalities as a result. Over time the obsessions of these groups of Naacal dancers have come to define them, and they now typically no longer dance for enjoyment or even to hone their skills, but rather because they remember how to do almost nothing else.

Group Composition
Current Dancing Style
Solitary – a single Acrobat (1d6+3 levels) and d3 random servitors
Jerking, frenzied and arrhythmic
Currently in schism (divided into two camps)
Utter stillness punctuated by sudden flamboyant motions
Gradually starving due to servitors malfunctioning
Small – 1d6 Acrobats, 1d3 Decadents, 1d3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+2 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Ballet-like leaps and throws
Fierce conflict with another nearby dance group over a theoretical dispute
Uniform and rhythmical, with each dancer performing in carefully choreographed synchronicity
Disturbed by nearby singing dogs who destroy their perfect silence each dawn and dusk
Medium – 2d6 Acrobats, 1d6 Decadents, 1d6 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Slow, graceful, elegant
Targeted by a band of cannibalistic hunting Figments
Primitivist, incorporating animal cries, copulation, and excretion
Feel that they have lost their ability, and that their movements have become trite and ugly
Large – 3d6 Acrobats, 1d6+3 Decadents, 1d6+3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 4d6 random servitors
Ground-based rolling, writhing and wriggling
Targeted by nearby monstrous Figments
Individualistic: each member performs one of the above
Are studying a nearby Figment village to learn new “naturalistic” dance techniques