Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Historical Slang for Your Edification and Amusement

From The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, by Eric Partridge (which runs at 1000+ pages and is utterly fascinating), to smatter into NPC dialogue for that "authentic ye olden days" vibe. I chose a handful for each letter of the alphabet with the approximate dates of first usage according to the book. You could choose thousands more.

Abbey lubber - A lazy monk (1538-1750), a lazy, thriftless person (1750-1900)
Academician - A harlot (1760-1820). Ex academy, a brothel (late C. 17-18)
All wind and piss - Contemptuous (C. 19)
Avering - A boy's begging naked to arouse compassion (late C.17)
Avaunt, give the - Dismiss a person (C. 16-17)

Bachelor of law - A drinker (1650)
Bachelor's baby - An illegitimate child (1670)
Batty-fang - To beat (C.17)
Beggar-maker - A publican (C.18)
Beggar's velvet - Downy matter or fluff (C.19)

Chair-days - Old age (C. 19)
Chovey - A shop (C. 19)
Church-work - Work that proceeds very slowly (C. 17)
Clapper - The tongue (human) (C.17)
Cold cook - An undertaker (1720s)
Cunny-warren - A brothel (1785)

Dive in the dark - The act of coition [it actually says this] (C.19)
Dismais - In low spirits (1760)
Disguised - Drunk (C. 16)
Docked smack smooth, to be - To have one's penis amputated (C.18) [Be thankful you don't live at a time in which this was happening frequently enough to need a slang term]
Dusting - A thrashing; rough weather (C. 18)

Ebb-water - Lack of money (C. 17)
Earwig - A malicious prompter or flatterer; a crony (1610
Eve's custom-house - The female pudend [it actually says this] (C.18)
Execution day - Washing day (C.17)

Fair trader - A smuggler (C.19)
One of the faithful - A drunkard (C.17)
Fart-catcher - A footman or valet (mid-C.18)
Fingers made of lime-twigs, to have - To be a thief (1596)
Flying camp - A gang of beggars (Late C.17)

Gawk - A simpleton; a fool (C.17)
Gin-trap - The mouth; the throat (1827)
Glimmerer - A beggar alleging loss by fire (1560
Goats and monkeys (at), to look - To gaze lecherously (at) (1749)
Grin at the daisy-roots, to - To be dead (1880)

Hard neck - Extreme impudence (1870)
Hoddy-peak - A fool; a cuckold (1585)
Horn-thumb - A pickpocket (1565)
Howsomever - Nevertheless (1750
Hydromancy - The "study" of drink, i.e. alcoholism (1650)

Idea-box - Head (C.18)
Ivory-box - Mouth (1880)
Ivy-bush, like an owl in an - Having a large wig or very bushy hair (1606)

Jack Ketch's pippin - A candidate for the gallows (C. 18), also called a "Gallows apple"
Jelly-bag - The scrotum (C. 17)
Jug - A prison; to imprison; lock up (C.19)
Jump, see how the cat will - To watch the course of events before committing oneself (1820)

Keep back and belly - To clothe and feed (C.18)
Ken - A house or compound (1560)
Ken, crack a - To rob a house (late C.17)
Ken-crack lay - Housebreaking (C.17)
Ken-cracker - Housebreaker (C.17)
Key of the street, have the - To be shut out for the night or homeless (1835)
Kick the wind (or clouds) - To be hung (late C. 16)

Lay in water - To defer judgement (C.16)
Lion, as valiant as an Essex - Timid or fearful (C.18) [substituting "Essex" for a suitable location of your choice]
Loose fish - A person or irregular, esp. of dissipated habits (1827)
Lullaby - The male member (C.19)
Lump and bump - A fool; a simpleton (C.19)

Marriage face - A sad face (C.19)
Maunding cove - A beggar (C.17)
Maw-wallop - A filthy dish of food (C.18)
Maw-wormy - Captious; pessimistic (C.19)
Moon's man - A gypsy; a robber by night (C.16)

Nail - A person of an overreaching, imposing disposition (1812)
Napkin, take sheet and - To eat and sleep with someone or in some place (C.17)
Nasty man - A garrotter; the one in a garrotting gang who does the critical work (1840)
Night-flea - A boarder (C.19)
Number the waves - To engage in a pointless or time-wasting task (C.18)

Old man's milk - Whisky or other spirit (1860)
Otherguess - Different (C.16)
Oysters, drink to one's - To fare accordingly (esp. badly) (C.15)

Pad in the straw - A hidden dagger (C.15)
Peery - Sly (C.17)
Pickers and stealers - Hands (C.16)
Play the duck - To show oneself a coward (C.17)
Priggism - Thieving (1743)

Queer duke - A decayed gentleman (C.17)
Quiet as a wasp in one's nose - Uneasy, restless (1670)
Quirklum - A puzzle (C.18)

Give green rats - To slander; to malign (1860)
Ride out - To become a highwayman (C.17)
Rise arse upwards - To be lucky (1670)
Rum dubber - A dextrous picklock (C.17)
Running snavel - A robber of children (C.18)

Safe as a crow in a gutter - Very safe (1630)
Satyr - Professional sheep-rustler (1714)
Secret - in the grand - Dead (1780)
Snail's gallop, go a - Go very slowly (1545)
Snub-devil - A clergyman (1780)

Tip the lion - To press a man's nose against his face and gouge his eyes out (1712)
Toad on a chopping block - Somebody sitting awkwardly, e.g. on a horse (C.17)
Tongue enough for two sets of teeth - To be very talkative (1786)
Topsail, pay one's debts with the - Got to sea having left debts unpaid (1785)
Town bull - A wencher or lady's man (C.17)

Umble-cum-stumble - To understand (C.19)
Upper storey - The head; the brain (C.18)
Useless as tits on a bull - Utterly useless (C.19)
Used up - Killed (C.18)

Vegetable breakfast - A hanging (C.19) [Because it's a "hearty choke" - geddit??]
Voyage of discovery - Going out stealing (C.19)
Virtue, to have one's [...] rewarded - To be imprisoned (1870)

Warming-pan - A bedfellow (C.17)
Waste, house of - A tavern or alehouse (1780)
Water in one's shoes - A source of annoyance (C.18)
Wedge-hunter - A thief specialising in silver plate and watches (C.19)
Well-fucked and far from home - To be very tired (C.19)

X, Y, Z
Yappy - Foolishly generous (C.19)
Yellow stockings, wear - To be jealous (C.17)

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Island Campaign

Like I suppose a lot of people do, I have a romantic feeling for islands, particularly small ones. I think this has three roots. First and most obviously, all of us (some more so than others) have fantasies from time to time about being able to retreat from the world and live in splendid isolation from its worries and woes, and life on an island promises this. Second, there is something attractive in the idea that, in living on an island, one could eventually come to know its entire geography and contents intimately, so as to extend a sense of homeliness and familiarity - of ownership, even - over everything on it. Third, there is simply something inherently beautiful about island views and island life; whether a sandy atoll in the aquamarine of the Pacific or a windswept rock in the grey North Atlantic, an island almost invariably comes with a picture-postcard aesthetic that is hard to resist.

An island, or a small archipelago of islands, is also a great location for a D&D campaign. It's a confined territory that PCs can come to know in detail relatively easily - which always makes for a richer experience for both DM and players. It's an isolated territory, so that it can "plug and play" into almost any wider setting, or simply have no relationship to an outside world at all. And it's a small territory, so it provides a framework in which to give player choice real consequence; they're not going to want to piss off that tribe of orcs who live on the other side of the island, because those orcs are going to be able to figure out where the PCs live pretty easily, and there's going to be nowhere to run when they do.

There are 187 permanently inhabited islands in the British Isles, so there are plenty of examples to choose from, but I think the best has to be St Kilda. St Kilda can not only lay claim to encompassing all the virtues of a small archipelago of islands as outlined above. It can also very probably lay claim to being about the most interesting place of its size in the world.

It has neolithic sheepholds dating back to 1850 BC. It has a ruined house of an "Amazon" who supposedly lived on the main island in prehistoric times. It has a ruined fort that was supposed to have been built by the Fir Bolg. It is covered in neolithic cleitan - small rock-built bothies for storing and preserving items (including, surely, magic ones) on a treeless island. It has an empty medieval village (which is, surely, haunted). It has feral sheep who are thought to be the remnants of the earliest domesticated sheep in Europe. It had a system of paying rent with seabirds. It has a name that is not actually that of a saint (except maybe it was).

Above all, it also has sea-stacks, cliffs that look like faces, and landscape features to die for. I loved this line from Baxter and Crumley's St Kilda: A Portrait of Britain's Remotest Island Landscape, cited in the wikipedia entry:

[St Kilda] is a mad, imperfect God's hoard of all unnecessary lavish landscape luxuries he ever devised in his madness. These he has scattered at random in Atlantic isolation 100 miles from the corrupting influences of the mainland, 40 miles west of the westmost Western Isles. He has kept for himself only the best pieces and woven around them a plot as evidence of his madness.

Add a thriving village with some interesting NPCs, a dragon, a giant, a few orcs, some pirates, a mad archmage's tower, a hermit druid and an entrance to some variant of the Underdark on one of the islands and you're good to go for an entire year-long campaign.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Eight Sample Hex Locations in the Bay of Sweetness

Galletue, self-styled Queen of Mist and Rain, a lunatic exile-turned pirate matriarch. She is mostly convinced that anyone who has ever been touched by mist or rain belongs to her, except for rare lucid moments when the horror of her new reality confronts her. She rules over a small band of disaffected and decadent former nobles manipulating her for their own ends, and a much larger band of thugs and killers she believes will help conquer what is rightfully hers.

The Old Man of Bariloche, monstrous inhabitant of a small island lying off the coast. He is a chimera with the rear of an elephant seal, the front of a cave bear, the wings of a huge seabird, and the heads of a red dragon, cave bear, and giant herring gull. His presence is used as a bogeyman to scare children, but he is very real - as is the treasure he has amassed over the years from passing ships.

Long Sands. A stretch of beach on which, for the duration of the gibbous and full phases of the moon every other month, tiny purple jellyfish are washed up in their dead thousands. They are the young of breeding adults who spawn in unison at these times; the bodies of the larva are collected and used for dye, while the adults are caught in nets and dried out to make tough slabs used for armour. The people of the nearby port-states intermittently war over possession of the beach.

The Seal King. A huge statue of an elephant seal, built from granite by a mad exile of long ago. It stands on the tip of a narrow peninsular overlooking the sea all around. Hollow, it has a door in its belly leading to a staircase down to a series of chambers in which the mad exile’s heirlooms can be found - along with his entombed and now-undead followers.

The Kelpie Cult. A religion of death, formed from those who long to find blissful extinction in drowning in the embrace of a kelpie. Each lunar month, one of their number is selected for presentation to a local kelpie in an elaborate ceremony of joyful worship; the kelpie merrily fulfils her part of the bargain. The cult live in a stockade from which they send beggars and thieves out into neighbouring areas to sustain the endeavour.

The Ribs. An ancient sea-elf structure which still partially rises above the sea’s surface not far from shore. It consists of three dozen columns encrusted with barnacles and seaweed arranged in two parallel lines of approximately 150 yards; the first two dozen columns are visible above the surface. Swimming underwater all the way up the route formed by these columns when the moon is full transports the swimmer to the Elemental Plane of Water. This is only known about by the very long-lived and wise. Otherwise the Ribs are described by local people as being haunted and/or the bones of a giant who will one day rise from the dead.

The Flotsam Giant. An ungainly, towering long-limbed figure which appears permanently on the verge of collapse. It is formed from some of the remnants of a wrecked ship which was once carrying a cargo of spirit-beings from elsewhere in Orbis Immobilis - in the aftermath of the wrecking, they escaped and imbued the detritus with their sentient energy. The giant roams a large island attacking all it encounters; it long ago drove away the human inhabitants, who live as refugees in a nearby port-state.

The Broiling Channel of Malalhue. A large whirlpool which forms in the channel between two islands when the tide rushes in and out shortly before moonrise and the high moon. This produces 1d6 sea-spray mephits (treat as mist mephits) who then fly off in search of employment or mischief; they dissipate after one lunar day. There is a 1 in 6 chance on any visit at the specified times that a wizard or cleric is present to try to convince the mephits to join him in some endeavour.

Monday, 10 June 2019

The RPG Hobby is Bigger Than You Think

It depends on how "role playing" is defined.

I've come to believe that human beings cannot help themselves role-playing under certain conditions. Yes, I know that in a broad sense we are all always inescapably playing various roles - father, mother, husband, wife, teacher, plumber, professional snooker player, etc. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking specifically about games.

There are certain types of games - war games, board games and computer games - in which players naturally start to associate themselves with a certain role or character such that at a phenomenological level they begin to think "as" somebody else, somebody who they are not. 

The most obvious example of this from my experience is the computer game Football Manager and its earlier iteration Championship Manager. Here, the player notionally takes on the persona of the manager of a football club somewhere in the world, and the game simulates the decisions that a manager supposedly takes - buying/selling players, picking the team before matches, carrying out training, coming up with tactics, and so on. It would be entirely possible to play Football Manager in the manner of chess - just doing what is necessary to win as an abstract challenge. But the actual experience of playing Football Manager is nothing like this. In fact it is an emotional rollercoaster in which every last outcome is keenly felt and in which one comes to identify so strongly with one's abstract "manager" that one can quite readily come to hate opposing managers, clubs, and even one's own players for frustrating one's wishes in-game. (One of the reasons I stopped playing the game in around 2013 was because it was making me so angry and stressed that I thought it was no longer worth the inescapable emotional investment. I would be better off with the real-life stresses of actually managing a football club, and being paid for it.) Football Manager is not just a computer game. It's actually a role-playing game. It just isn't thought of in that way.

Other examples which may be more pertinent to your experience are strategy games like Civilization and those in the Paradox Interactive stable. I don't think anybody plays Civilization as though it is just an abstract challenge like Scrabble or Go. Instead, they quickly take on the personas of all-powerful Gods, bossing their little Egyptians/Mayans/Mongols around and taking against those dastardly Persians while looking favourably on the sexy Carthaginians (or whatever). They may not take it as far as writing Crusader Kings II After Action Reports in the first or third person, which thousands of people do. But they certainly, to some extent or other, come to feel as though they occupy a "role" - and become emotionally involved in the decisions and activities associated with it. 

Some board games - the best examples I can think of being Monopoly and Diplomacy - also have this character. Play a game of Monopoly and you'll quickly find that the players will begin to act as though they are real-estate entrepreneurs, threatening each other with bankruptcy and bargaining ferociously once all the locations are bought. It's not as though their entire personality changes for four hours. But there's slippage from the role of player into the role of character. They aren't just rolling the dice and trying to amass money as though they are just a stand-in for abstract points. They are trying to amass money because, briefly and conditionally, they want money.

What, then, are the conditions in which "role playing" takes place? I'd suggest:
  1. There's a game
  2. The game is one which has at least some connection to a concrete reality, typically the real world but perhaps a made-up one (from Football Manager, which is about the real world right down to accurately modelling the abilities and actions of tens of thousands of living professional footballers, to Civilization V, which isn't about the real world at all)
  3. The game conceals its mechanics behind an interface (like Crusader Kings II), or a fake set of tokens or other realia (like Monopoly) and isn't based on abstracted or notional items like cards (poker)
These conditions may simply be ideal ones. Chess probably doesn't meet them, and yet it is possible to think of oneself as "being" the King when playing (although most players likely don't do this). 

Thought of in these terms, there are hundreds of millions of us - maybe billions - around the world. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

CRPGs and the Silver Age

Very little to my (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge has been written about the synergies between computer-game RPGs and RPGs-proper during what has been called the hobby's Silver Age and the Bronze one which followed.

This is somewhat surprising, because the period in question, roughly 1984 to 1999 or thereabouts, was one in which both fields might have been said to have entered "maturity". It's also one in which there was presumably considerable overlap between people involved in the RPG hobby during its development into an industry and people who played CRPGs.

It would have been odd if the two fields had not influenced each other. And we are all familiar with how the RPG hobby lead the way for CRPGs. Many of the early successful RPG games were actually D&D based (Pools of Radiance) and the others borrowed many of its tropes such as classes, levels, hit points, equipment list management etc. A lot less is said about the cross pollinisation going on in reverse, though, and I think this may have been even more significant for all that it was often hidden.

The thing about CRPGs is that, until recently, it was impossible to realistically use them for proper sandbox play except in very limited "kind" environments like early roguelike games (more on "kind" versus "wicked" play in a future blog post). There simply wasn't the processing power or data storage. This meant that one simply couldn't use them for genuinely open-ended exploration. Instead, there had to be constrained environments with a "story" to follow. These games - the Final Fantasy series being maybe the paradigm examples - had to take on the nature of interactive fiction almost by default. There was a bit of freedom to move around and a bit of chance in terms of encounters. But by and large play was a matter of going from cut-scene to cut-scene.

It is surely no accident that this kind of play rose to such prominence in the RPG hobby as well during the era of CRPGs prominence. Any such discussion will of course rapidly devolve into an argument over chickens and eggs. But one that is nonetheless perhaps worth having.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Avatar 10 Years On

It is hard to believe that Avatar was released in 2009 - in both senses in which that can be true. On the one hand it's difficult to accept that it's not just yesterday. And yet on the other it feels like several eons have passed since it came out.

The overwhelming sensation, though, is a vague doubt that it ever even came out at all. What happened to Avatar? Where did it go? Considering that it is the highest-grossing film of all time, it's amazing that it's so rarely mentioned: when was the last time Avatar came up in conversation in your hearing?

I have a soft spot for James Cameron's films in general and Avatar in particular. In a way, there is a lot of the George Lucas about him: the end product may be dreadful, but at least he seems like he's trying do do something grand and original and amazing. There's a peculiar honour in George Lucas's tilting-at-windmills endeavours with the Star Wars prequels (terrible as they are), and James Cameron is frequently the same. Avatar is dreadfully flawed. But, at the same time, wow. That is the sensation that I left the cinema with after having watched it, and the sensation I still vaguely remember now: Wow. The script was dreadful. The plot was formulaic. The acting was wooden. But still, the spectacle was quite something.

Here was a man who not only did something BIG, but sensed it. Doing something BIG in itself isn't enough, of course - just watch the John Carter film, or Oliver Stone's Alexander, for instance. But Avatar is more than that. There's feeling in it too. I think in the final analysis that's what carries it over the line: James Cameron's own emotional investment in the project which finds its way through the Hollywood machine, the money, the special effects, the awful cliches, and communicates itself to the audience - in the thinnest of whispers, but communicated nonetheless. He really wanted to make Dances with Wolves in space with blue aliens, god damn it, and he will carry you along with him, come what may.

I am uplifted by Avatar. There is so much wrong with it. But the sheer genuineness of it shines through. It sweeps you along. I can't tell you why, any more than I can tell you why the first Star Wars film does. All I can tell you is that enthusiasm counts for a lot, and that even on a project as big as Avatar undoubtedly was, it can still manage to make itself felt.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Living Larders and Monster Mutualism

Out in the garden the other day I was amazed to discover ants farming little clusters of black aphids on one of the plants. I knew this sort of thing went on and had seen it in nature documentaries, but for some reason I had never expected it to be possible that it would take place before my very eyes in suburban Newcastle, of all places. It was one of those transcendental moments that one experiences from time to time when confronted with nature's awesome (I use the world advisedly) richness - one in which your consciousness unfolds beyond itself and becomes momentarily subsumed in the interconnectedness of all of Gaia's children, or something. I definitely wanted to put on something tie-dyed, that's for sure.

(What I settled for was violating the Prime Directive - I couldn't help myself - and putting a ladybird on said plant in the vicinity of the aphids. The immediate consternation and aggression among the ants was terrifying when seen from the perspective of something less than half a centimetre in size.)

The word for this sort of thing is, apparently, mutualism, or a mutualistic relationship - an "ecological interaction between two or more species in which both species benefit". The ants get nectar from the aphids; the aphids get protected from ladybirds. There are plenty more examples, many of which seeming to involve ants (my favourite being the Devil's Garden phenomenon). 

I am not sure whether human-animal farming relationships can be classed as a form of mutualism - it depends if you see the farm animals as benefiting or not. Possibly in classically pastoral relationships the case is easier to make than modern industrial farming, but that's an argument for another day. But there's clearly a similarity between the ant/aphid dynamic and that of, say, humans and goats.

Or, humans and pigeons. This is a photo of the remains of the "living larder" at Speke Hall, a restored Tudor manor house which I also recently visited. It was once used to store pigeons, who were bred for their tasty flesh in Tudor times; the birds were obviously kept in the stone box things on the back wall.

What kind of mutualistic and/or farming relationships would exist in a D&D campaign setting taken to its sensible conclusions? Most obviously and boringly, giants would presumably herd giant animals. There are plenty of other relationships that suggest themselves. I wonder if there isn't a more interesting way of doing it: count the number of monster entries in the Monstrous Manual, randomly generate numbers so you can pick two of them, and see if you can think of a mutualistic relationship between the resulting entries. For example, I've just performed the exercise three times and come up with:

Firedrake and Insect Swarm. A species of firedrake that follows swarms of locusts as they travel across the land, feeding off the weakened and starving beasts and people left in their wake. The locusts benefit by the firedrake occasionally searing off old vegetation with its breath so they can get at the lush green shoots underneath. 

Owlbear and Peryton. Owlbears often live near peryton nests, scavenging the corpses of the people whose hearts have been removed by the perytons during mating. The owlbears protect the nests in "return" (though of course neither party is conscious of this). 

Giant Rat and Sprite. Sprites tell giant rats where to find birds' nests to steal eggs; sometimes - though not often enough for the rats to cotton on - they lead them instead to the homes of enemy sprite clans to cause mayhem. 

Clearly, this won't work for every pairing (rust monster and giant squid, anyone?) but juxtaposition can produce excellent results. Do your own. For those working with the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, I reckoned there were 304 entries (though I may have miscounted). does the rest. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Bay of Sweetness

East of the Forested Sea, beyond the peninsular known as The Finger, a vast wide gulf opens up in the land. Into it flow rivers bringing with them fresh rainwater deposited at the feet of distant mountains in the warm north. This carries the rich fecundity of those lands pouring into the dawn sea and filling it with vigorous life. The waters throng; the peoples living along the coast are richer than they have any right to be given their climate. But this in turn makes them prey for others.

Small city-states cluster all along the length of the bay, supported entirely by the bounty of the sea. Ostensibly human, occasional individuals among their populations are born with appearances betraying an elven lineage; families with a propensity for such qualities tend to form their political and cultural elites. Quixotic madness is also a feature of these families, manifesting as manic episodes growing in frequency and severity as old age approaches. Often these episodes involve a desire to drown, or to descend into the ocean and live on the sea bed. Legend has it that long ago a race of sea-dwelling elves mingled with the human population on the shore; this caused elven blood to be subsumed in that of the more vigorous humans, remaining only to make itself apparent as fortune dictates. Whether this is true or not nobody knows, but what is true is that on the sea bed - often in very shallow places easily accessible to divers - are built forms overgrown with seaweed and coral, resembling overgrown buildings, monuments, or tombs.

Rocky islands dot the bay itself, and here live other beings and other polities. A heptarchy of neogi petty-kings, ruling over their subject semi-aquatic puffin-headed orcs in an archipelago of seven islets. A were-walrus magician on an isolated island crafting golems from sand and seaweed for protection and companionship. Tribes of primitive cormorant-aarakocra living in filthy villages of nests lying exposed on rocks. Mad human noble exiles carrying out bizarre utopian schemes or plotting conquest with their loyalist retinues. Bands of pirates and brigands living from theft and kidnap. And much more besides. Between these islets are the shallow, fertile waters of the bay itself, mother to endless swarming undersea life and, in turn, all who live off it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Why Animal People?

Comments on a recent post got me thinking about anthropomorphised animals. Why is it that as children we are told stories about rabbits, frogs, badgers and bears, and why do we carry this through into grown-up fantasy literature and RPG bestiaries? Why do so many of Aesop's fables feature talking animals? Why are non-humans the protagonists of so many myths and folkloric tales from around the world?

There is a reasonably large literature on this, it seems - I found a sizeable number of journal articles on it when searching earlier today. Approaches to the question vary. On the one hand, this article has a purely pragmatic perspective: we anthropomorphise animals in fiction because it is easy for children to identify with them, because we like flights of fancy and escapism, because an animal character has a ready-made personality (wily fox, lazy sloth, cheeky monkey, etc.) without any need for elucidation, and because of the potential for humour.

On the other, there are more self-consciously academic pieces which locate anthropomorphism of animals in a broader discussion of the functions of literature, reading and education.

I think the practical observations do have some bite, but this somewhat throwaway observation in the second piece I linked to seems to get closest to the mark:

When the risks and rewards are high, when the signs are ambiguous, when we are up against powerful forces, we envision human intents and actions cloaked in the shapes of objects and animals, and we act accordingly. Intuitively then, we begin to see faces in the clouds, a man in the moon, assign people’s names to life-threatening storms, and watch our investments in bull and bear markets.

This is an important observation, but it only gets us so far, Undoubtedly in situations of emotional urgency we tend to imbue both animals and inanimate objects with feelings (who hasn't hissed "Stupid thing!" at some recalcitrant tool or fiddly object that seems to be deliberately and malignantly refusing to cooperate in whatever task you want to carry out?). And we do sometimes create stories about objects too - Thomas the Tank Engine, Boris the Digger, Gwen the Carrot, or whatever. But it doesn't tell us why, and nor does it explain why children are in particular drawn to stories about animals over objects, and both over stories about other people. The authors of the piece in question suggest that anthropomorphism helps create emotional distance, allowing us to deal playfully and safely with difficult themes - for example, I suppose, by thinking of an economic downturn as a bear, or an oncoming deadly storm as Katrina. I don't think that's quite right. We want to think of a storm being Katrina or a bear market because we want someone to struggle against, to hate - not because we want to think of them in a light-hearted way.

I'm inclined to think that our tendency to anthropomorphise animals comes about because animals have a vibrancy, a certain "thinginess", to them; they are real in a way that other things are not. Partly this is because, as I've said before, we have a deep interest in, and connection with, animals that can surely only be explained by their importance to us in our evolutionary past. (Or, if you prefer, by the fact that they are created beings just like we are.) But mostly I think it is because to watch an animal go about the business of living is to watch something truly putting its all into the task in front of it. Animals never engage in half-measures - everything they do, they do for real, whether it's looking for food, mating, sleeping or playing. Their doings spark our curiosity and engage our emotions because they are vested with so much more vigour and determination than our own. This is why children respond to stories about them. And it is also why when we want to think of something monstrous, something vivid, something exciting, the minds of DMs so often instinctively go towards animal people.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Map Porn

I am not very active on reddit, but I do occasionally drop in, primarily to visit this subreddit. It is called "Map Porn". It features map porn. There is no false advertising. In lieu of a proper post (it is a holiday weekend after all) here are some of the maps featuring on it that tickled my fancy recently - perhaps they'll tickle yours.

Above is a map of the lands that would have been revealed if the Atlantropa movement had been a success. The Atlantropa story is weird enough but I also like to imagine if the scheme had been carried off by a crazed magician at the time of the Punic Wars, or a holy mad man at the time of the Black Death, or some other point in history when it would really have fucked things up.

Above is what the British Isles and its surroundings looked like in 5,500 BC. What was in the bit that's now under the North Sea? 

Here is somebody's imagined map of what Africa would have looked like in the modern day without European colonisation. It reminded me very strongly of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. 

Above is French Polynesia overlaying a map of Europe, to scale (featuring Air Tahiti's network). A reminder of the oceans' vastness, but what fascinates me most are the really isolated islands. Like Temoe, which is now uninhabited but once featured temple structures, or Marotiri, which must surely feature long-buried aliens, the tombs of gods, or the last resting place of Prester John.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Doing Things With Humanoids

These days when I look through a bestiary the excitement comes from digging out the stranger and more esoteric monsters (Jackalwere, anyone? Urchin? Elven cat?) and doing interesting things with them. (A civilisation of Jackalweres who farm urchins, ruled by elven cat sorcerer-brahmins...hmm.) Elves, goblins, orcs, bugbears - for the likes of me these are as cans of lager shandy to a crack fiend. They just ain't going to cut it.

Or are they?

The thing about humanoids is, each is basically a simple archetype that can be summed up in a handful of adjectives. Hence: 

Elf - Immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable
Dwarf - avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly
Halfling - pastoral, naive, gluttonous
Orc - brutal, bellicose, cruel
Goblin - mean, sneaky, cowardly
Hobgoblin - militaristic, hierarchical, cruel
Gnoll - savage, violent, isolationist

Your adjectives may differ, but you get the point. 

Once you break the humanoid races down in this way and think of their essence as being mere descriptive words it becomes very easy to change them cosmetically and also alter their abilities accordingly. You could of course simply swap them round, and have hyena-men being immortal, intelligent, gracile and inscrutable, and elves being savage, violent and isolationist. More interesting, I think, is combining those adjectives with animal types - the more unusual the better. So, for example:

What if the dwarf archetype (avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly) were a race of nudibranch-people?
What if the elf archetype (immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable) were otter-people?
What if the orc archetype (brutal, bellicose, cruel) were gull-people?
What if the hobgoblin archetype (militaristic, hierarchical, cruel) were African wild-dog-people?

One wouldn't have to use the term "African wild-dog-person", of course. One could continue to refer to them as "hobgoblins". But you could change their abilities accordingly - maybe hobgoblins now have immense stamina and can run for vast distances without tiring. Maybe nudibranch-dwarves can spit acid. Maybe orc-gulls can fly. And so on.

Perhaps one could also mix things up by juxtaposing archetype and animal species, so that, for example, the orc archetype is something that in common perceptions is very non-brutal, non-bellicose and non-cruel (swan?), or the elf archetype is something very un-gracile and un-intelligent (tortoise?). Again, you get the point. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

In Defence of Geographical Appropriation, or, the Lake Malawi Dilettante Problem

The other day I visited an aquarium. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you like (nobody else does), but I find it very hard nowadays to go to a zoo; even in the enlightened conditions of the modern ones I still find myself feeling a sense of pity for the animals which is a bit too overwhelming. Aquariums are different because - perhaps entirely wrongly - I can convince myself that fish haven't got much of a clue what's going on anyway and can be reasonably happy if fed, kept healthy, and given plenty of space.

Anyway, the aquarium in question had among many other things a "mini Lake Malawi zone" with a huge tank populated entirely by different types of Lake Malawi cichilds. It is very effectively set up, with the surface of the water at roughly eye level and fake beaches (with real sand) arranged around it, along with background art that creates the feel of being really there. Squint a bit and stretch your imagination slightly and you can half-imagine being a snorkeler in the waters of the lake one hot morning before breakfast.

It got me thinking about Lake Malawi as a D&D campaign setting. A vast freshwater sea, in effect, populated by many varieties of cichlid-people, giant catfish (and catfish-people?), dangerous spirits formed from millions of zephyr-like lake flies, and tribes of fishermen who capture starlight to use as magic. The PCs could be Traveller-esque (or Mercator-esque) traders, perhaps, sailing from one port to another, trading rare and strange commodities and avoiding lake-monsters. Or hopping from island to island exploring ruined temples, cave systems, or baobab forests full of weird nature spirits. And that's just the ideas that pop into my head in the space of 5 minutes.

Throw a dart at a world map (you're allowed a re-throw if it falls in the ocean) and investigate the immediate area around where it hits. The chances are high you'll be able to base a D&D campaign on something roughly inspired by it. Some might call this geographical appropriation - why don't you set your game in the environs you're familiar with? I call it an easy way to come up with something new but accessible.

I don't have a problem with cultural appropriation - in almost all cases if viewed in good faith, anything that could be called "cultural appropriation" turns into imitation-as-sincerest-form-of-flattery. The same is just as true of geographical appropriation. I don't know much about Lake Malawi. But I like what I do know about it. Read the wikipedia entry: is it not a place to be celebrated? Isn't everywhere? (Well, not Greater Manchester.)

Monday, 20 May 2019

Three Vignettes from an Unpublished Setting

A long, long time ago, Patrick SChris MNathan R and I sat down in a pub in Liverpool and plotted the release of a kind of RPG-supergroup book featuring four separate but linked campaign settings. The whole thing eventually went precisely nowhere. I wish I could tell you this was a result of bitter rivalry, hatred, murder and fraud, but I think it was mostly because we all have enough on our plates as it is. The big - very big - caveat to that is that Patrick's bit of it did eventually became Silent Titans.

My setting, The Devil in the Land of the Rushes, has foundered in unpublished obscurity. I have long harboured ambitions of producing bits and pieces of it in a second volume of The Peridot, but now I think I might finish it off as a stand-alone and cheaply-available module. Here are some vignettes from it:

The Curate's House. A small cottage with three upstairs rooms and two downstairs ones. While the structure is aged and the contents faded, the building is in reasonable condition. The curate who once lived there, Mr Edgar Gravel (a kind and generous man), was transformed by the devil into a big, black ethereal spider with long legs of shadow and an intangible central mass of unlight. It now inhabits the garden, which is a hundred yards long and somewhat, but not entirely, overgrown - as if haphazardly tended. During the night, the spider spins strands of darkness into silk; anyone looking into the garden at that time would see many thin lines of clear translucent pale light where the spider has tugged the darkness away for its webs. During the day, the spider spreads its webs of shadow over the house itself and in the neighbouring area to ensnare prey.

At the very bottom of the garden stands a folly - a cylindrical tower - which Mr Gravel originally had built to provide work to unemployed labourers. He used it for stargazing. The telescope remains on the top floor. Looking through it at night reveals strange constellations - resembling insects, birds, snakes, human figures, flowers of unknown types, and faces with too many eyes or hands with too many fingers. This is because gazing through the telescope gives the viewer a vision of the universe as Lucifer would have created it - a strange pastiche of how things really are. The North Star is the tip of the beak in a constellation that resembles the woodpecker - this always points to the place the devil is resting, because the devil is the focus of all he creates.

The Sons of Gawain. Two-and-a-half knights, Sir Florence, Sir Lovell, and Gingalain, roam the Land of the Rushes in search of the Devil to slay him. They are either an embodiment of chivalric faith, a creation of the land itself formed spontaneously to force off the chains of chaos which bind it, or both. They are expert at overcoming their enemy's wiles, yet every time they defeat him, they find traces of him again in another form. The older pair are Sir Florence and Sir Lovell. They are twins with grey eyes like an approaching storm and black hair and beards; one uses a great axe, the other a mace. Gingalain, their adolescent half-brother, is the son Gawain got on a fairie spirit. His other name is Le Bel Inconnu, "the Fair Unknown" - and he alone in all of the Land of the Rushes can see and understand things as they once were.

The Assassins. 11,110 years and 364 days ago, a mission was issued in a language which is no longer spoken anywhere. The goal is simply stated: murder of the Maid with the White Hands. The path, however, was tortuous and complex, and exquisitely timed so that the entire process would culminate in her death precisely 11,111 years after the order was given. [...] There are five assassins. The first, Methodos, knows how the Maid is to be killed. The second, Mandatum, knows who gave the command. The third, Ratio, knows the reason why. The fourth, Locus, knows where the Maid lies. And the fifth, Supplicium, knows nothing, but is the one who must carry out the act.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

The USP of RPGs and the Phenomenology of New Beginnings

There is no word in English to my knowledge which describes the feeling one gets at the start of a fictional adventure. We have words like "excitement", "anticipation", and so on which describe the general feeling of looking forward to something. But nothing which specifically refers to that special kind of looking-forwardness that you feel when you first crack open a long novel or opening book in a saga; sit down to watch a Hollywood epic or long Netflix series; or begin a D&D campaign. You will be intimately familiar with that feeling, I am sure. It is the feeling which says, "Buckle in - almost anything could happen next."

That feeling is a long-lost cousin of the ontological flicker. Cast your mind back to the first time you read The Fellowship of the Ring or A Game of Thrones, watched Star Wars, started a long-running D&D campaign, or similar. The sensation of anticipation that you get in those circumstances doesn't come from knowing what's going to follow. It comes from guessing at it. You begin with a very vague sense of what's the come (in the sense that you think The Fellowship of the Ring probably won't feature cowboys or aliens or a murder mystery), and a myriad of different possibilities opening up like a vista in front of you. Who are these characters? What are they going to do? Where are they going to go? Where will they end up? Your mind starts racing with fifty ideas a second about what the answers to those questions might be, and you start to mentally slaver at the prospect of discovering what they in fact are. To refer to another family resemblance, it is a bit like the giddy feeling one gets when one steps off the airport shuttle into a new and unfamiliar city and looks about oneself and says, "OK, so this is Rome/Paris/Tokyo/Frankfurt/Moscow/Geneva/Chicago/Cape Town. What next?" You think you have a bit of an idea what Rome is supposed to be like. But that's about the size of it, and now you intend to find out about the real thing.

As you progress with your reading, the vista of possibilities very gradually narrows. With each passing chapter new possibilities open up, but many more are closed off (it becomes clear that the story will be about Frodo and not some other person in Middle Earth; it becomes clear it will be about destroying the Ring and not, say, a holiday in Rivendell; it becomes clear that the Fellowship will go into the Mines of Moria and not go any of the other million places they could conceivably go, and so on). Reading a work of fiction, or watching a film or TV series, then, is an exercise in the gradual closing off of possibilities. Slowly, but surely, potential plot paths wither away until, with the final page, you can look back and see that there was only ever one route from Chapter One to The End after all.

The USP of RPGs (provided you aren't doing the pre-plotted thing) is that, almost uniquely in possible fictional narratives, there is no such closing-off - or does not have to be. Because of the influence of random chance, and because there is no fixed ending and no real authorial control over what happens, new vistas of possibility open up all the time. It's not so much that you get a gradual narrowing of potential plot paths until the vista disappears in the ultimate denouement. It's more like you are constantly climbing from one hill to the next; each time you get a new view, and while what you can see has a relationship to where you've come from, you can never quite have anticipated its precise contours, nor what the view from the top of the next peak is going to be like.

What is similar, though, is that special kind of anticipation for which we have no word. Rolling up a group of PCs at the start of a campaign is a lot like reading the first chapters of a fantasy saga as the characters are introduced, or watching the first half hour of a long-running film- or TV series. How is this all going to pan out? It's an intoxicating sensation. Maybe the Germans have got a word for it instead. They've got one for everything.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Slaughter, Mayhem and Destruction

Some quotes on life in Gascony and south-west France in the early years of the Hundred Years' War, from Jonathan Sumption's Trial By Battle (more of which here):

Private war, a long-standing privilege of the Gascon nobility, continued to destroy whole regions and to divide and weaken Edward III's allies...The English government's correspondence with its officials in Gascony during this period is filled with complaints of civil disputes between noblemen and injunctions to reconcile the rivals before one of them deserted to the enemy. In the southern extremity of the Landes and the Bayonnais the last vestiges of central control had disappeared by the early 1340s. Arnaud de Durfort, who had been granted the lordship of Labourde for its better defence against the French and Navarrese, conducted a private feud against the Albret clan...and both groups waged a persistent guerilla war against the citizens of Bayonne. Edward III sent the Chief Justice of the Gascon court of appeals to...enforce his will by confiscating Labourde...Arnaud reoccupied his lands with "slaughter, mayhem and destruction". The merchants of Bayonne continued to be attacked and plundered on the roads and waterways about the city. Stone towers appeared throughout the area and robbers made their camps around them. In the two years ending September 1343 the ducal revenus of the Bayonnais yielded nothing. On account of the anarchy prevailing there, the clerk recorded in his ledger, it was "quasi tota destructa".


The symptoms of a crisis of loyalty and a grave breakdown of public order became very noticeable by the end of 1342 as economic distress intensified and demobilised soldiers began to pour across Languedoc...The men who laid waste to Albigeois in 1345 did so with banners unfurled, trumpets blowing and 400 cavalry. In the march of Gascony private war had actually been legalized by the French crown in times of peace or truce on the basis that those regions had once formed part of the duchy of Aquitaine where custom sanctioned it. The appearance of the first self-governing companies of routiers was a more sinister event: large gangs of armed men, organized like military units with a formal structure of command, emblems and names. The Societe de la Folie, so called, terrorised the district of Nimes for some eighteen months until its leader was taken and hanged in June 1344. Like most of his kind he was a member of the minor nobility of the province, the group which had suffered most from the economic troubles of the period. 


The Talleyrands, counts of of Perigord, although still the dominant family of the region, were a declining power. The Rudels, lords of Bergerac and principal potentate of the Dordogne valley, had died out in 1334 in a welter of fighting and private war. Their place was being filled by aggressive and covetous rivals from the neighbouring regions of Aquitaine, pre-eminently the lords of Albret and Caumont; and by a host of turbulent petty lords very similar in their outlook and ambitions to the hill-barons of the Agenais. The Count of Perigord...was a natural focus for their opposition. The rebellion of some of these men in 1340...was a watershed in the province's history, introducing a long period of anarchy and civil war of which the Bordeaux government took full advantage. In August 1340 the English had lodged a garrison at Saint-Astier in the Isle valley which remained there for a year until the place was taken by storm in the autumn of 1341. The "rebels and enemies" who had occupied Montences in the name of Edward III...withstood a siege of more than six months in the following year...Fresh sores were continually opened. At about the time that the Bishop of Beauvais was demolishing the towers of Montences, the English planted another garrison at Mussidanm with the assistance of its lord...This place remained in English hands for more than five years. The boundary between banditry and war was never exactly drawn. The French government, however, referred to the provincial capital of Perigueux as a frontier town.


Long terms of garrison service interrupted by guerrilla warfare, armed robbery and castle-rustling under minor commanders was not a life for the impressed townsmen and minor landowners who traditionally made up the numbers of medieval armies. Instead the fighting fell to volunteers drawn from a growing military underworld of disparaged gentry, refugees and drifters, malcontents and petty criminals. The court records and letters of pardon of the period are filled with the stories of their lives. The tale of Arnaud Foucaud could stand for many of them. He came from the small village of Clion in Saintonge. His family seem to have been rich peasants. He had learned how to fight on horseback and could handle a lance. When Foucaud was about fourteen or fifteen years old he got involved in a village feud and killed one of his antagonists in a fight. This was in 1337, the first year of the war, as the French were overrunning English-occupied Saintonge. When the Seneschal's officers came to arrest him he fled to the nearest "English" garrison, which was at Montendre, an enclave of the duchy about 15 miles from his home. The commander there, a louche petty nobleman from Bearn, hired him as a soldier. His life at Montendre consisted in keeping watch and periodically pillaging and burning villages. When the castle was captured by the French in July 1338, Foucaud received a safe conduct as part of the terms of capitulation and returned home. In 1340, after two relatively uneventful years, he went to Jonzac, the nearest market town, and met two relatives of the man he had killed. There was a fight. Foucaud himself was badly wounded, but both his antagonists were killed. Five weeks after this incident, as he was still nursing his wounds, he was arrested. But he never stood trial. The Seneschal only wanted to be rid of him. So he allowed him to go free on condition he would leave the province for good. Foucaud went to Bourdeaux. Here, he took service in the household of Jean Colom, a rich urban knight who employed him as a cavalryman and took him on several expeditions...In June 1341 another soldier in Colom's pay persuaded him to join a small armed band which was being formed for some private purpose of the La Motte family. This turned out to be the daring capture of Bourg, by far the most brazen of the Bourdeaux government's breaches of the truce of Esplechin. Foucaud fought gallantly in this enterprise and served in the garrison of the town after it had fallen. But his reward was meagre. His wages were unpaid and his share of the spoils amounted to no more than ten livres' worth of equipment. Moreover, he quarrelled with the garrison commander, who suspected him of being a French sympathiser, and tried to extract a confession by torturing him. By 1342 he was back in Bourdeaux hiring out his services as a jobbing trooper. He joined a band of 100 men recruited by the lord of Pommiers to carry out long-range raids in Saintonge, but the pillage of this enterprise was worth only fifty livres to be divided between all of them. He fought with Ingham's army in the campaign of Saintonge and Angoumois in the autumn of 1341, taking part in the capture of Blanzac, and gaining ten livres in cash as his share of the spoil. At some stage during 1343 he seems to have obtained a pardon from the French royal lieutenant in the south, the Bishop of Beauvais. But by the autumn of 1344 he was back in Bourdeaux. According to evidence which he gave under torture...he was next hired in Bourdeaux by a Bearnais nobleman to take party with twenty-five others i na raid on a small priory not far from the city. He and six men stood guard outside, while the rest went in, tied up the Prior and his servants and stripped the place of gold and silver, horses and everything of value. But the captain of the troop took most of the spoil for himself. Foucaud's share was only twenty florins. This incident was his undoing, for it was not covered by his pardon. It is not clear how he fell into French hands. He probably tried to go home. In May 1345 he was taken to Paris and held in the prison of the Chatelet to answer charges of treason, robbery and murder. He was convicted on the 27th and beheaded in Les Halles on the following day. Foucaud was twenty-three years old when he died. Booty was an incidental bonus for men like him, but it was not booty that drew them to warfare and most of them got very little of it. They were drop-outs, desparados.


Even a small number of these licensed bandits posted as garrison troops in the middle of French-held territory had a catalytic effect in accelerating the breakdown of public order...They stole and killed over an extending radius, creating islands of ungovernable territory and roads too dangerous to pass...In the spring of 1343 the visitors of the Order of Cluny, touring the provinces of the Order in western France, were able to see very little in the southern parts of Saintonge and Angoumois. Most of the priories there were inaccessible, abandoned or incapable of feeding their occupants. "They have enough to eat today," the visitors reported about one of these places, "but they have no idea whether they will eat tomorrow. The troops and mercenaries stationed hereabouts are eating up the whole wealth of the house." [...] The garrison of Blanzac had reduced everything within marching distance to desert.

Who needs orcs and goblins for a D&D hexcrawl? 

Friday, 10 May 2019

Reading RPG Books and the "Ontological Flicker"

Reading an RPG book is I think almost a unique experience in that it induces a special kind of what Brian McHale in Postmodern Fiction called the "ontological flicker". 

What he meant by this was what happens in the space between a book's physical text (the paper, the words on the page) and the fictional reality it creates in your head as you read. When you read a novel, for instance, your attention seems to oscillate between the physical object of the book, and the imaginary fictional world it presents in your mind - flipping from one to the other and back again endlessly. One millisecond you're reading a sentence, then you're imagining what it represents, and then you're back to the text again, repeating ad infinitum - and you do all this entirely instinctively and unconsciously. Indeed, you can't really help yourself doing it. You'll know instantly what that feeling is like, I am sure, when it is described to you in this way, even if you have never quite thought of it like that before.

You can think of fiction as existing in the tension within the liminal space between two poles: the physical reality of the book/text and the false reality it produces in your mind as you read.

An RPG book like, say, the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, also has this character of producing ontological flickering, but it happens in a different way to a novel, short story, or other text - because what you imagine tends not to be merely a picture in your head of what is being described on the page. Rather, it tends to be a range of speculated, hypothetical scenarios inspired by it. To read the text of the "Cockatrice" entry is not for your mind to merely to flicker between the physical text and an imagined image of the cockatrice. It's for it to flicker between the physical text and visions of cockatrices appearing in many different scenarios - in some campaign you are currently involved in; as a random encounter result; as a creature in a "lair" on a hex map; in a fight with PCs; and so on. In other words, the ontological flicker is between text on the one hand, and a range of imaginary things which are perhaps only very indirectly connected to it. 

RPG materials, in other words, exist in a somewhat different space to fiction: a liminal space between the physical reality of the book and the spectrum of many and varied false realities it produces in your mind as you read. 

This is true even of, for instance, looking at a hex map. To do so is to enter a space of tension between the real object - the image - and what it produces in the mind: ideas for what to put here, what to put there, what this mountain would actually look like "on the ground", what this forest contains, how deep this lake is. It's not one fictional reality, but many brief fictional realities which exist for slivers of seconds before they are gone.

This is what makes reading good RPG books so pleasurable - a bit like reading tends of thousands of novels boiled into one; much less depth, it is true, but much more imaginative potential within that ontological flicker. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Incomplete List of Underrepresented Musical Genres in the RPG/OSR Community

Folk for Rural Hexcrawling, because this is the sound of the countryside:

Dylan for Character Generation, because every Dylan protagonist kind of sounds like a PC from OD&D:

Which is true of Tom Waits too, by the way:

Jazz fusion, because you can just totally picture dungeoncrawling to this:

More jazz fusion, because you can just totally picture this being the BGM in a mad archmage's tower (and it's not quite as unlistenable as you might think until 50 seconds in, trust me):

Reggae and dancehall, because of the romanticized vision of rogueishness it routinely delivers:

Scott Walker for Call of Cthulhu, because, well, just listen to it:

Experimental ambient post-pop for SF goodness:

Lebanese jazz fusion for those Al-Qadim moments:

Traditional jazz for dungeoncrawling - tell me you can't picture a group of PCs creeping down tunnels, peering round corners, and searching for traps to these:

Big band, for when a Big Bad Evil Guy appears on the scene:

Russian orthodox choral music, for just about anything really:

Post your own recommendations in the comments!

Just Do It Well - Revisited

A couple of months ago I posted this, the long and short of which was:
"What works for you and your group" [is] the most profound and important advice there is, and the most difficult to carry out.
I have been blogging for long enough now to have learned the lesson time and time again that some readers are not particularly interested in what you actually mean, but only see your words as an opportunity to grind a particular axe of their own. So I was not very surprised when this was interpreted (by some people, anyway) as a kind of repudiation of skill, rigour and experience, or a platitudinous recommendation along the lines of "just do you" - as though I would seriously suggest that DMing is just a matter of unreflectively doing "whatever" and hoping for the best.

My observation - that "what works for you and your group" is profound advice - does not lead to the conclusion that anything goes and that there are no better or worse ways of playing. Far from it. What I meant (and this should be apparent from the sentences which followed in the original entry), was that human social interactions are complex, and achieving a pleasant equilibrium in which everybody feels as though they have enjoyed themselves while also contributing to others's enjoyment is extremely difficult. But that pleasant equilibrium, if achieved, is one of the best things there is about being human.

Think of the average social gathering - family get-together, lunch with colleagues, dinner with friends, drinks at the pub, whatever. If you're like everybody else, what you will have noticed is that it's easy chit-chat and gossip, but comparatively hard to leave afterwards feeling as though you've actually had a meaningful encounter - like you genuinely connected with another person in a significant way. When you do get that feeling, it's nice. But what's even better is when you leave afterwards feeling as though that was true for everybody in the group - like all five or six of you were really on the same page, discussing things that mattered, sharing ideas, sharing a common sense of humour, actually conversing in the true sense of the word.

We treasure those moments because they're rare. Like your average British male aged 30-50, I spend a decent amount of time in the pub after work or with friends (less than I used to since becoming a parent, but I do manage it at least once in a blue moon). It's easy to go home after a few pints thinking to yourself "Yep, that was a decent night." But it's not very often that you do thinking "Wow, I really felt like we all connected in a positive way." (Indeed, it is comparatively much more frequent to go home thinking, "Ah, I wish I hadn't said that,=", or "Bob was kind of a prick tonight", or whatever.)

Gaming is no different. It's easy to go home after a session thinking, "Yeah, that was fun". It's also easy to go home thinking, "That was fine, but..." It is not common at all to go home feeling as though not only you were on fire, but everybody else was - that there was, for want of a better word, synergy. Everybody contributing, everybody of a similar mood, everybody excited about what was unfolding before your eyes.

Finding "what works for you and your group" is hard, and since any group of five individuals is different from the next, it isn't straightforwardly a matter of applying advice or rules of thumb (although those things are not entirely useless). You have to do it by feel, and you have to learn through doing - that is, through building up a sense of how to hit that sweet spot for everybody through meeting week after week. Sometimes it comes more naturally than others. Sometimes it never does. But you have to work at it.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Help Me, Blog Reader Brain Trust, You're My Only Hope

I have been searching in vain for four books or series of books I faintly remember from my youth. Google has failed me; TOMT has failed me. Monsters & Manuals blog readers - I believe in you!

The four books/series I am searching for are as follows:

1) A novel about a teenage school boy who is always day dreaming about a fantasy land he invented. One day, he discovers it is real and goes there. The people in the fantasy land speak a strange pig-latin-type language. He meets a girl (naturally). I think the front cover was a picture of a boy in school uniform carrying a ruler as though it was a sword?

2) A series of children's books which were something to do with a boy exploring strange places on a flying carpet with a cat called Timothy (?); I think a 13-hour clock was also involved. I may have dreamed elements of this.

3) A book about gnomes and/or other folkloric spirits, like elves, goblins and so on. It had a vaguely environmentalist message - something about how human beings are wrecking the planet and disappointing said beings. The main thing I remember was that one of the characters in it was a creepy gnome organist, with horribly long fingers, lank hair, and a vast underground pipe organ. I don't think it was the Wil Huygen book.

4) A fantasy series which I think was for adults (or teenagers). As I recall it, there were two volumes. The story involved a barbarian invasion of more settled lands, and the defence against it. I mainly remember the villain, who was an extremely tall, thin devil-creature disguised as a man, who also at one point I am convinced also disguised himself as a flea (though again, I may have dreamed this).

If you know what any of these things are, please comment accordingly. You will earn my undying gratitude, and lots of karma for the next life.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Lost in Dreams of Mu

Somebody asked for an update on Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. I shall oblige, but be forewarned; it's not pretty.

BGSJ is a setting about exploring an ancient crocodile's memory palace. From that humble beginning, it has sprawled. There is a game setting under there somewhere. But presenting it has proved difficult.

The potted history of the setting is that said crocodile has been alive since the Triassic period. During its life it has roamed far and wide across oceans, seas, and freshwater systems, and created a memory palace to store its knowledge of all the things that it has seen. But it has recently gone into a period of quiescence - a long slumber in its old age. During its sleep it slowly sifts through its memories, and dreams about its life, as it slides inexorably but glacially towards death.

Approximately 50,000 years ago the Naacals, the inhabitants of the lost continent of Mu, discovered the sleeping crocodile in a small freshwater lake (in what we now know of as New Guinea). A group of their philosopher-mages discovered a mechanism for entering its memory palace. They used this as a means of escaping an apocalypse which they were predicting, and they moved into the memory palace wholesale. There they constructed a city ("The Unremembered City", because it was the only thing in the memory palace which the crocodile did not actually remember) and used it as a base to explore. They discovered that the crocodile's "palace" is really a world: a huge ocean full of strange lands, beasts and places which the crocodile remembers - and which have slowly become warped and strange over the many millions of years which separate the actual events from the memories themselves.

The apocalypse came and caused the continent of Mu to sink beneath the sea, leaving only remnants of the original Naacal civilization behind (who went on to find civilizations in India, Egypt and Mesoamerica). But the Naacals in the crocodile's memory palace continued their exploration and colonisation of the lands they found there, and created a new civilization of their own within it.

However, since time stands still in the world of memory, these Naacals effectively became trapped in a static environment. As much as they enjoyed exploring the memory world, and constructing things within it, they eventually became bored, listless and decadent, and finally their civilization too collapsed. A few remained sleeping in The Unremembered City; others scattered across the memory world to pursue esoteric goals and lost contact with one another.

Fast forward 40,000 years in the outside world and newcomers came upon the crocodile and entered its memories. In order, they are:

  • Xu Fu - an ancient Chinese magician/courtier/sage who went in search of the Elixir of Life at Mount Penglai 
  • Pape Jan - an Ethiopian king who went to spread the word of God among the heathens of Asia 
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani - a Persian Neo-Platonist who went abroad to spread Truth
  • Anak Wungsu - a Balinese merchant who went searching for new luxuries to trade
  • Jorge de Menezez - A Portuguese conquistador who was wrecked in New Guinea after a life of rapine and slaughter in the Spice Islands
  • Ebu Gogo - a diminutive hominid from one of the Spice Islands whose people were all massacred by conquistadors, who fled and began looking for a new home
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau - a New Guinean hunter who went into the jungle to search for a dowry to give to the father of his beloved 

Each of these people came to a different region of the memory world and began to transform it inadvertently in their own images, implanting their own needs, desires, hopes and fears within it - so that their individual goals began to transform they stuff of the world itself and warp it into something else entirely. So:

  • Xu Fu came to an area of placid sea dotted by tropical islands and discovered within it Mount Penglai - an impossibly tall mountain inhabited by dragons, a phoenix, and other creatures from Chinese folklore, as well as things and peoples that he saw on his journeys around the Pacific Rim
  • Pape Jan came to an area of bushland featuring the crocodile's memories of early humans, and discovered within it tribes of pagans, each with their own devout belief systems, and each in need of conversion; he also found there Solomonic or Goetic demons
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani came to the crocodile's memories of the aftermath of the meteor strike which killed the dinosaurs, now inhabited by the surviving avian dinosaurs and the ghost and wraiths of those that died, and discovered in the midst of the chaos all of the Neo-Platonic philosophers pursuing theurgy 
  • Anak Wungsu came to a shallow sea where in the distant past the crocodile witnessed ziggurats constructed on the seabed, made by aliens, and introduced the notion of commerce to the remembered alien civilizations there
  • Jorge de Menezez came to the crocodile's memory of an ancient Atlantean city which the crocodile mistakenly believed to have been inhabited by birds, and found it to be a new place to raise an army with which to carry out further conquests and set himself up as ruler of the world
  • Ebu Gogo came to the crocodile's memory of the carboniferous swamps of distant eons, and there began to breed with the amphibian inhabitants to create species of hybrid spawn to be her new people
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau came to the crocodile's memory of an ice age, and transformed it into a hunting ground dotted with patches of mountainous jungle amidst the glacial ice

And also, inadvertently, these intruders also awakened the Naacals sleeping in The Unremembered City - who have now woken to discover a world very different to the one which they had originally discovered. The PCs are from the younger generations of these Naacals, who have now once again begun to reproduce and spread across the crocodile's much transformed memory palace.

The presentation has changed quite a bit but I now think I have a fairly good structure with which to proceed. The key is avoiding too much infodump; so much so that I am now strongly leaning towards not actually having any of the above background fluff in the book itself. I instead intend to present the world "as is" and let individual DMs and players figure things out for themselves. They can of course stumble across my blog entries on it, but there is a lot more depth to the background than what I have presented here.

In other words, basically it is 7 different "planes" of weird stuff to explore, that is inspired purely by real world history and folklore and my own corruption of those things, and not by any existing fantasy setting of any kind. At the centre is a city with a pseudo-Egyptian/Mayan flavour, from where the PCs derive.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Name That Aesthetic: Niceland?

There is a certain kind of 'look' which exists across a multitude of visual depictions of fantasy and SF settings. If I could describe it in words I would say that it is as though somebody took the architectural styles and geographic context of every culture in the Eurasian continent, created a dreamy pastiche of each of them, and then put the results in a blender with a sprinkling of Africa and Mesoamerica and served it up as a porridge with a generous helping of molasses. The world that it depicts (for it appears to be one world - one region of one world, in fact; or even just one city in one world) is all domes, minarets, muted colours, waterfalls and pleasant mediterranean sunshine, like it is always about 7pm on a late summer's evening in Marseille; there is never any litter and there are no slums, and the fauna are mostly birds soaring about in a genteel and stately fashion to lend things an air of peace and calm. It is a place you want to go for your holidays, so you can sit outside a streetside cafe with a beer or glass of white wine and peoplewatch all day while deciding what you're going to have for your dinner.

What is the name of this aesthetic, and what is the name of the world which it depicts?

Here's the quintessence of it - Naboo in The Phantom Menace:

Another good example is James Gurney's Dinotopia (wikipedia informs me that I'm not alone in noticing the resemblance between Dinotopia and Naboo):

Then there's pretty much every city scene which has ever appeared in an episode of NextGen:

John Howe's Minas Tirith from certain angles appears to be in this whatever-it's-called-world also:

And one mustn't forget basically every cityscape in Magic: The Gathering (all the ones I've ever seen, anyway, which I admit isn't all that many):

But perhaps the best way of finding examples is just googling "fantasy cityscape". Here's some I found:

My own suggestion for the name of this aesthetic is "generic pleasant mildly-exotic fantasy city", and for the world it depicts, Niceland. You may have something better in mind.