Tuesday 31 July 2018

The Master of Monster Descriptions

Zelazny does not get enough attention in general in RPG circles, but in particular for his excellent, efficient descriptions of monsters. He may be the single most influential author on me in that regard. Some examples:

It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were as thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. its arms were longer than its entire body. it was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked. (The Borshin, from Jack of Shadows)

There was something unusual about their appearance... For one thing, all had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the condition seemed normal. For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of their hands. All of them had prominent jaws (and) forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny. There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort. (The shadow creatures of Fiona, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Morgenstern was six hands higher than any other horse I had ever seen, and his eyes were the dead color of a Weimaraner dog's and his coat was all gray and his hooves looked like polished steel. (Morgenstern, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Head something like a croc's, only bigger. Around forty feet long. Able to roll itself into a big beachball with teeth. Fast on land or in water - and a hell of a lot of little legs on each side. (The Boadile, from This Immortal)

Her hair was green, though streaked with silver, and her eyes were round of moons of jade and her brows rose like the wings of olive gulls. Her mouth was small, her chin was small; her cheeks were high and wide and rounded. A circlet of white gold crossed her brow and there was a crystal necklace about her neck. At its tip there flashed a sapphire between her sweet bare breasts, whose nipples were also bare green. She wore scaled trunks of blue and a silver belt, and she held a scepter of pink coral in her hand and had a ring upon every finger, and each ring had a stone of a different blue within it. She did not smile... (Moire, Queen of Rebma, from Nine Princes in Amber)

It's the little things, really, that do it: the careful but frequent reference to vivid colours and simple adjectives (shiny, dead, sweet, sickly); the arch observations ("a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked"); and the wry humour ("there was something unusual about their appearance"). But it's very clever and incisive use of language, too - there's so much communicated in that very simple last sentence: "She did not smile."

Above all, what I like is that Zelazny is very comfortable with you, the reader, not having a clear picture in your head of what the monster is like - not so that you fill in the gaps yourself, so much as that you are given an impression in the artistic sense: a replication of what it would be like to encounter the thing being described. If you came across Morgenstern you wouldn't be jotting down every detail of his appearance. You'd notice the size, the eyes, the hooves - and then you'd run, or look away, or hide, or do something else. Capturing that in text is what Zelazny does at his best.

Friday 27 July 2018

Gygaxian Scientasy

I have a lot of affection for a phenomenon which I am here going to call "Gygaxian Scientasy", or "scientasy" for short. (Terms which I would have preferred - "scientism", "scientificism", "scienciness" and so on - are all taken as words used to describe the application of scientific language and dogma in non-scientific domains like the humanities or social sciences to bestow a veneer of  false truthiness. "Scientasy", which is something slightly different, will have to do for my purposes.)

Scientasy is the mixing of the scientific and the fantastical - or, perhaps put more accurately, the handling of fantastical things in a non-expressionistic, quasi-positivist way. In Gygax's D&D, while there are magic, different planes and other worlds, monsters, alignments and so on, there is also a sense in which those fantastical elements are the subject of academic and pseudoscientific inquiry within the fiction itself. (Making Gygaxian Scientasy something a little different from the problem of banalifying systematization I have written about before, which is very much a case of nerds imposing order on the supernatural in order to make it into something usable in a game.) There are sages who study the world. And, moreover, there is a world for them to discover: there is an objective reality to all of this fantastical stuff - it is empirically verifiable that there are inner planes, that there is something called alignment and there are 9 varieties of it and it actually affects things, that there are deities and they have different "spheres", that there are different categories of magic, and so on. Despite its weirdness and wonder, Gygax's D&D is ultimately a positivist's universe. If you tried hard enough, thought hard enough, studied hard enough, investigated hard enough - you could actually understand how it all works.

Scientasy reached its apogee in 2nd edition, with the Spelljammer and Planescape campaign settings and the publication of the Complete Psionicist's Handbook. There is no more scientastical approach to D&D than that presented in Planescape, with its rigorous in-universe classification and taxonomization of infinity; it's not that the multiverse is carefully and circumspectly divided into different planes for different alignments or elements, and the deities and demigods categorised into different levels of power, and philosophies put into neat little boxes, and so on, just for the purposes of DMs and players - it's that all those different clades exist within the fictional world itself, where everybody knows about them and acts upon their absolute veracity. The very stuff of the multiverse comes pre-categorised.

I enjoy the scientastical approach because it seems so redolent of a late renaissance/early enlightenment understanding of the universe as something that could be got at by inductive reasoning but which, by the way, included angels, philosophers' stones, birds that go and live under the sea in winter, Blemmyes, sea dragons, and so on. Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton would have been entirely at home in your average D&D campaign setting: they would have loved trying to figure it all out. (And, of course, since our universe must surely be just another part of the Prime Material Plane, it's entirely possible that they are living somewhere on the Outlands as petitioners doing precisely that. Now there's an adventure module for you: a journey through the D&D multiverse in search of Issac Newton.)

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Plane as the Nose on Your Face

There are two models for the Inner Planes. Let's call them the purity model and the playability model.

The purity model is the one adopted by Monte Cook et al for 2nd edition Planescape. Here, each inner plane is comprised of the pure essence of whatever the core element is. The Plane of Earth is an infinite expanse of earth. The Plane of Air is an infinite expanse of air. The Quasielemental Plane of Salt is an infinite expanse of salt. And so on. There is no "up" or "down" - just endless [Element X] in all directions. In the Plane of Air, or Water, this means you are able to float up and down and side to side more or less freely, but in, say, the Quasielemental Plane of Salt you would have to burrow in those directions through solid crystals of salt in order to get anywhere.

Some concession to making those planes accessible to PCs came in the notion that there could be a bit of "bleed" from one into another, so you might get floating islands of earth in the plane of air, or bubbles of air in the plane of water, and so on. But otherwise most of the Inner Planes would be entirely hostile to PCs up to the very highest level, without cheats like Rings of [Element X] Resistance and whatnot. As soon as you appear in Salt you dehydrate and die; as soon as you appear in Radiance you go blind and insane and your face melts (something like that anyway), etc.

The playability model is the one adopted most memorably in my mind by Weis and Hickman in their lesser-known series, the Death Gate Cycle. Here, the world was divided into different elemental planes, but they were still livable to human beings: Air was a big void of air but it had islands floating in it which you could fly between on dragons; Earth was a big volcanic rocky place with tunnels in it but also a surface; Fire was a massive jungle with vegetation so thick you couldn't get to the ground; Water was a big globe of water which (if I recall correctly) you could breathe and which had floating Zaratan-like beast-islands in it. Here, while the different planes had different elemental characters, you could still, if you wanted to set an RPG there, have 1st level PCs adventuring quite happily.

The purity model is superficially the more interesting of the two in the sense that it's quite cool to try to imagine what kinds of things would exist on the Quasielemental Plane of Such-and-Such, but I wonder whether in fact this is true: it's probably more of a tricky, challenging and rewarding imaginative task to try to create a Plane of Salt/Ooze/Radiance/Earth/Mineral/Whatever which human beings could readily live in. What would a habitable plane of salt be like? How could you make such a place enough like a "real world" that it could plausibly be the home of human civilizations while still retaining the essence of a plane of salt? This seems to me to the interesting task, but the designers of Planescape sadly avoided it.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

The Problem of Sport

I play a lot of sport, I watch a lot of sport. With the sole exception of golf, I can enjoy almost any sporting activity you could name. But I've never played in an RPG which has sport as its focus. I can think of a number of reasons for this.

1. A lot of nerds don't like sport. Thinking about it, most of the people I've played RPGs with over the years have been of the two-left-feet, "it's just eleven men running around on the grass chasing an inflated pig's bladder", last-to-be-picked-for-team-games-during-gym-classes subspecies of geek (which I think is probably the dominant variety).

2. There aren't many RPGs that concern sport, and the ones that do are not popular. This is undoubtedly causally related to reason 1.

3. Sport is hard to operationalise for RPG purposes. This is for two sub-reasons:

a.  If you want the actual sporting events to be the main focus, what you will essentially end up doing is playing out the minutiae of matches in extended form with bits of role-playing in between, so that ultimately you may as well just play a table-top sport game such as Blood Bowl.

b. If you want it to be more to do with role playing, you would either end up with a very proscribed and railroady sort of experience in which the PCs mainly do the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways (playing different teams in different places every week, repeat ad nauseum), or with a game which is mostly about the adventures the PCs get up to between games, in which case why not just have them be adventurers?

4. It's hard to think up new sports that make sense (just ask JK Rowling) and existing ones are really complicated to model. Games Workshop did a stunningly good job with Blood Bowl, which is ridiculously fun to play while also kind of making sense as a mixture of rugby league, American football and Warhammer. But that may be the exception that proves the rule.

That said, I don't think all of these problems are insurmountable. In order to work, the game would have to be both compelling in the sense of being very enjoyable and tense to play through a match/bout/event, while also having a method of generating interesting random events to take place during downtime, together with a way of rewarding PCs for spending time training or learning new skills. You would have to make both elements of the game equally rewarding and deep, in other words, and that would require a lot of effort.

Oddly enough, the "builds" mentality of 3rd edition D&D marries well to the idea of sport: it would perhaps be quite straightforward to develop a gladiatorial version of D&D 3.5, and I suspect many people have. Old School D&D, not so much - indeed, the general trend among storygamers and D&D enthusiasts alike is, I think, towards being rules-lite rather than crunchy, and if sport is to be done well there needs to be a good amount of crunch.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Harlan Ellison, Cognitive Dissonance, and Defaulting to Openness

Harlan Ellison died recently. He was by many accounts (his own included, probably), a difficult character. While respecting his work, I was never a huge fan. I love "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". Most of the rest of his stuff I can take or leave, and a lot of it I think is pretty awful. (Having read Dangerous Visions fairly recently, I was struck by the weakness of his own contribution to the volume when stood up against the other giants of the field, and it must be said that his mini-editorials almost ruin the entire project; but on the other hand, nobody else would have been able to pull the whole thing off, which I suppose sums up the man pretty well, overall.)

But already the usual suspects are starting to wring their hands about whether or not it's problematic to like Ellison's work because, well, he wasn't a terribly nice man.

What I think is this. Sometimes, very often in fact, you will in life come across people who don't share your views, who have done bad things, or who you otherwise consider to be odious for some reason, and yet are capable of creating or doing brilliant, amazing things. This will create cognitive dissonance, and that will cause you discomfort. How can it be that Eric Gill was a sex abuser of quite startling extent and yet created some of the nicest typefaces and most beautiful public art seen in the 20th century? How can it be that Gaugin created such wonderful paintings while simultaneously being, basically, a filthy old pervert and a sex tourist? How can it be that Orson Scott Card has Wrong Opinions but wrote something as great as Ender's Game? How can it be that Scott Adams has produced some of the greatest satire of the modern workplace while also being, well, really fucking weird? How can John Lennon have been so cruel to the people close to him? How can Richard Dawkins have written such fantastic books while thinking such objectionable things about people with Down's syndrome? The examples are endless. And you are going to have to find a way to deal with the issue, because if it matters to you that people whose work you admire also be good people who think the right things, your life will end up being greatly impoverished because - it turns out - extremely creative and capable people tend not to be perfectly nice all the time.

In some cases, escaping this form of cognitive dissonance is easy, because the person in question doesn't produce work which is actually any good. It's easy not to listen to Gary Glitter - as well as being a sex offender who has rightly faced criminal consequences of his behaviour, his music was crap.

It can also be easy when the person in question is dead. It's easy to use Gil Sans as your favourite typeface, because Eric Gill is long gone.

The hard bit is when you can't escape through either of those routes. Do you still want to enjoy Kevin Spacey's performance in Glengarry Glen Ross or American Beauty? Do you still want to enjoy the Harvey Weinstein-produced Pulp Fiction? (Assuming the two men are guilty of what they've been accused of.)

And don't hide behind the platitude that you can separate belief from action. The attitude often presented in these kinds of situations is: "Well, I don't mind what people think or believe, but I draw a line in the sand when it comes to actions." Yeah, right: so you'd be entirely comfortable supporting the work of an open, ardent and genuine Nazi or committed advocate of pedophilia provided they "didn't act on it"? What would make you dislike somebody enough that you would not want to associate with their art?

You have a choice, essentially, when approaching this issue, that comes down to a very simple equation. Do you want your default position to be open, or closed? Is what's important to you purity, or experiencing art? Do you want to focus your energy on avoiding what makes you uncomfortable, or accepting it?

The decision I have made is that it is better to default to the latter over the former, because in the final analysis purity won't make you a better person: art will. Purity has a superficial allure - it makes you feel as though you are contributing to a better world if you refuse all contact with anything produced by "bad people". What you are doing in fact is limiting your own horizons and narrowing your mind, creating for yourself an isolation chamber in which all you are ever exposed to is the product of the like-minded. It isn't necessarily easy. But I think openness is the better path to follow.

(A postscript: this interview about Harlan is worth a listen.)

Sunday 1 July 2018

Why are there humans in Yoon-Suin?

The weekend is the witching hour for blogs. If posts only get a third of the number of page views on a Saturday or Sunday that they would get normally on a weekday, they only get a tenth of the number of comments.

This is the time for the silly, the experimental, the strange, the ill-advised, and the willfully obscure to sneak out of the window, climb down the drainpipe, and scamper out into the dark rain-damp streets to have their nefarious fun.

Today, I was thinking about the origin of Yoon-Suin and its place in the multiverse. Why are there humans there? I suppose the most sensible and natural explanation is that they have always been there, in the manner of fantasy races. Nobody asks where the elves came from in Mystara, or the dwarves in the Forgotten Realms. They're there because they are (or a god made them and put them there, etc.).

The second most sensible explanation is that humans came to Yoon-Suin from elsewhere. They were explorers, or would-be colonists, or refugees, or simply migrants. They came to Yoon-Suin, stayed, and proliferated. Now nobody even remembers that they're not actually native to the continent - except, perhaps, for some obscure monastic order somewhere in the Mountains of the Moon, and slug-man students of historical anthropology who have read the correct obscure tomes in the correct forgotten archives.

A third explanation: there is a rift somewhere in the fabric of reality that leads - or lead once - from Yoon-Suin to our world. In the ancient Australian outback, the deserts of Namibia, the Cheddar Gorge or the Lascaux Cave. Through it, slug-men once ventured and brought back slaves and captives for work, experimentation, pleasure, or perhaps merely to observe - and these slaves or captives, just like kudzu, Japanese knotweed, rabbits or the cane toad, found their new home much to their liking and spread with such rapidity it was as if they had always been there. As far as the slugmen are concerned, they really have: the introduction of humans happened so may eons ago that whatever forgotten archives may have documented it are long collapsed into dust and waste.

The latter two explanations raise further interesting questions: what was living in the Hundred Kingdoms, Sughd, the Mountains of the Moon, etc., before the humans came along and replaced them?