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.

Friday 26 April 2019

He Was Merely King

I have been reading Jonathan Sumption's mammoth and as-yet unfinished history of The Hundred Years War. (Three series of books which I desperately hope I will some day see concluded: Sumption's The Hundred Years War, Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and, against my better judgment, A Song of Ice and Fire.) Sumption puts us all to shame; a career as a hugely successful barrister and QC, followed by summary appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court...and meanwhile manages to find the time to write 4000 pages of serious narrative history drawing from a vast range of sources in English, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and Dutch.

The bastard.

I love reading books which attempt to seriously grapple with the question of what medieval life was actually like - mainly out of genuine interest, obviously, but also out of a desire to give my D&D a slight veneer of authenticity without being boring or pompous about it.

Here's Sumption on French kingship in the early medieval period:

[T]he reality of power was more elusive than the formulae. At the beginning of the eleventh century Robert II...exercised direct power in less than a tenth of his kingdom, a compact lozenge of land stretching from Paris in the north to Orleans in the south. Here he was the immediate feudal lord. Elsewhere he was merely king, compelled to rule through vassals who exercised the royal power for him but did so in their own names and with an independence which reduced the monarchy to a portentous honorary dignity. The princes could and quite frequently did make war upon him and upon each other, as well as maintaining direct relations with the papacy and foreign powers.

I love that: merely king. A reminder that medieval "countries" were nothing like "countries" as we understand them today. How much power does the king in your Blahblahland have?

Along similar lines:

Provinces long engulfed by the expansion of the royal domain remained nations in themselves, sustained by traditions rooted in recent history and geographical fact. Paris was infinitely remote from most of France at a time when a mounted messenger could cover only 30 miles in a day in the best conditions. Convention and conservatism isolated these communities even when geography did not. Strangers were to be ejected from parish churches, as the statutes of provincial synods never ceased to declare. Villagers marked out their territory with rows of stakes and crosses. Beyond these frontiers, there lay the cathedral city, the market town, the shrine of a local saint, little else. 

"Points of light", anyone? I love the idea of PCs turning up at a village and finding it marked out by sinister-looking stakes, and then being summarily ejected as "strangers" for not having some form of legitimate and accepted customary introduction. And, on the subject of language and the medieval state:

[A] bishop of Viviers could..threaten to disinherit his nephews if they spoke French instead of the 'language to which I was born and my father before me'. Pope John XXII was born in Cahors, was educated at Orleans and reigned in Avignon, but he was nevertheless unable to understand a letter which the King had addressed to him in French.

Even better: at the village they not only don't understand "common", they virulently despise it and will cast out and disinherit anybody who even dares to let it pass their lips.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Every Man for Himself and God Against All

Walking back home earlier today I discovered the local sparrows in much consternation; a magpie raid was in full flow. It's been a warm Easter and they must already be incubating - the magpie would have been after eggs, although I've seen them take live fledglings regularly over the years too. 

Spring is a low-level guerrilla war fought out in a thousand tiny skirmishes a second, right on our very doorsteps and lawns, inside our hedges and flowerbeds, across our rooftops and driveways. It's a conflict of ambushes and surprise attacks, of espionage and manoeuvre - one in which nobody has real allies but all have enemies, where no tree or bush can be trusted not to harbour predators with murderous intent, and no mercy or quarter is ever expected or given. 

It is hard to believe in a compassionate creator god if you spend any time watching nature. You don't even have to go out into the wilderness. Just sit in a suburban garden and watch. I've seen dogs tear the belly out of a still-living hedgehog and pull out is entrails. I've seen a cat break a mouse's spine just for fun and leave it broken and bleeding but still gasping for breath, and had the task of having to put it out of its misery with a spade. I've seen the local sparrowhawk unceremoniously spread the contents of a pigeon's digestive tract, undigested seeds and all, across my patio in the process of ripping out its organs. It might be all barbecue, sandpits and deckchairs for us, but for animals it's a world of misery and fear - through no fault of their own. 

"April is the cruelest month." It's also the best month for a D&D campaign; it makes me long for a bit of survival horror. 

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Hobby Shivers: Definition and Caterogisation

Patrick posted an interesting interview with Kevin Chin, an artist who does a lot of work for Games Workshop. In it, the subject of "Hobby Shivers" comes up. Here's Kevin describing what it is:

Let me introduce you. Well, hobby shivers to me is, when you read about something in the background and the narrative, maybe Black Library novel, or in the army books. The codecies, the battle tomes. You read about it, and you go, that's cool.

You will all, I think, know what he means instinctively. You are looking at something related to your hobby or interests, and you just get - let's use the word without sniggering - a thrill. A delicious and actually physical feeling of excitement - and let's use those words without sniggering, either. It's something very similar, I think, to the sensation you would get as a kid when you would walk into a toy shop or sweet shop and see everything there on the shelves waiting for you and it would be almost as though somebody flipped a switch to send electricity racing up and down your spine. A sense of - is it anticipation? is it vicarious excitement? is it just your brain overloading with a sudden eruption of too many possibilities? - overwhelms you for a second and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

You've all been there. Don't pretend you haven't.

The interesting thing about "hobby shivers" is that it's not confined to nerdish pursuits. I am sure that whatever your hobby is - fishing, rock climbing, cross-stitch - you will experience it (when looking at a particular fly, cliff-face, or....whatever equipment cross-stitch involves). It's a human universal.

There is a taxonomy of hobby shivers, though. First, there is what I would call excitement kitsch. Kundera described kitsch as being the "second tear"; it is what happens when you see something sentimental and cry one tear for yourself and then a second one from knowing that everybody else is shedding a tear as well. Excitement kitsch is when you see something that you know millions of other people are also seeing and getting excited about, and your own excitement is accentuated by that. Some examples would include:

Mitchell Johnson's 7/40 against England at Adelaide in the 2nd test of the 2013/2014 Ashes series (which, incidentally, is the clip I would show to anybody from a non-cricketing country who thinks that cricket is some kind of genteel, toff's sport):

Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final:

The highlights from Germany's 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup Semi-Final (where the excitement kitsch spills over into what you might call schadenfreude kitsch):

Second, there is the aesthetic sublime. This is something which possibly speaks for itself: hobby shivers just because something looks absolutely wonderful.

Like Paolo Di Canio's volley against Wimbledon in the 1999/2000 season (a bona fide fascist has not done something as visually pleasing since the days of Leni Riefenstahl):

Or Sakumoto Tsuguo doing Annan in 1988:

And then there is the vicarious thrill which is the type of hobby shivers you get when you know that you will never do something but can savour the feeling of it in your very imagination.

Like Horst Leuning tasting a 42-year old Black Bowmore you will never buy:

Or this guy talking about guitar riffs you will never have time to learn:

All three of these taxons can appear in fields more relevant to the interests of readers of the blog. Here, for example, is excitement kitsch:

Here is the aesthetic sublime:

And here is something that gives a vicarious thrill:

Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and Friendships Across the Divide

Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were friends. (Wolfe talks about this a little bit in the interview I linked to yesterday.) Nothing unusual in that, you would have thought; they moved in similar circles, were roughly the same age, and there is a certain similarity in their approaches to narrative.

But you couldn't get two more different people politically. One a traditional Catholic conservative; the other an ardent advocate of left-wing thought of the anarchist variety and a feminist icon. I bet they didn't agree about abortion; I don't have hard evidence for this, but it seems a reasonable supposition (and I'm certain they would have disagreed about plenty of other things). 

Yesterday, when I was googling for news about Wolfe's death, I came for some reason across P Nielsen Hayden's twitter account. (I hadn't heard of him either; he's apparently the Editor-in-Chief at Tor.) Here's him tweeting in response to the news:

Something made me scroll down and look at his other recent tweets, though, and here we find this, nestled in among a very long list of other extremely partisan tweets:

The irony won't be lost on you, but there's a broader point to be made: the texture of life has changed a lot since Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were in their heyday, hasn't it? You don't just agree to disagree any more; people from the other end of the political spectrum are unclean.

Now, this is twitter, which is all about people completely losing their minds, and sense of perspective into the bargain, so you wouldn't want to read too much into it. But as a foreigner in social media, I find it more than striking: here you have all these apparently intelligent, reasonable people, successful in their fields, collectively acting out a descent into a kind of Reformation/Counter-Reformation style of politics that you might have thought had gone out of fashion with the Patent of Toleration. That can't fail to have some sort of influence on the culture in general.

Long-term readers of the blog may be tired of me harping on about this issue, but it's an important one for us nerds. Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were nerds, and their shared interests allowed them to set aside profound political differences and get along. That was a good thing. Modern day nerds (P Nielson Hayden can, I think, be put into that category) seem at the forefront of the movement to drive wedges between oneself and others on the basis of political differences alone, and that's a bad one. I feel it's important for those of us with a bit of perspective left to keep pointing the finger at divisiveness in order to emphasise how silly it all is - and how unkind. Nobody chooses to believe anything; neither politics nor religion works that way. You arrive at the views you have for host of very complicated reasons, and pure free will is never one of them; you're at the end of a very long chain of circumstances which led you to where you are today. If somebody thinks something radically different to you, it's because they're at the end of a very different, but equally lengthy, chain of circumstances to yours. You've got two alternatives with such a person: you can treat them with kindness and respect because they are a fellow human who is just as much a victim of circumstance as you are (which does not have to mean inviting them round to dinner, by the way; it can simply mean being civil), or you can vilify them for being bad and wrong. Which one, ultimately, has the stronger chance of turning them round? And which one will make you fearful and stressed-out and a narrower, meaner-spirited sort of person?

Answers on a postcard.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

So. Farewell then...

You will have probably heard of Gene Wolfe's death by now. 

This is a nice interview with him in the last year of his life. He begins slightly irascibly and maybe even rather shyly, but he warms up after the first 10 minutes or so. 

If you aren't already familiar with Wolfe's work, this is a very good opportunity for you to start. The Book of the New Sun is what he is rightly most famous for, but I think the Wolfe beginner would be better off starting with the Soldier of... series (Solder of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, Soldier of Sidon). I read these books a year or so ago after a recommendation from somebody commenting on an entry on this blog, of all places (which entry it was, I can't now remember; whoever it was who recommended it - thanks!), and I was blown away by them. They are the finest novels I've read in a very long time. That the series will now forever be unfinished seems also sadly apt.

Monday 15 April 2019

Footnotes Suck

I do quite a bit of peer-reviewing for a certain academic publishing house, which means I often get paid in kind with book vouchers. (Generally I prefer this over the cash option, because it is an opportunity to build my library with intellectual-looking books and make a show of being well-read. If I chose cash it would end up getting spent on beer.)

This means I have a big, and growing, collection of classical literature, from Homer to Camus and everything in between.

Generally speaking I love the reading, but the big exception is the footnotes. In almost all cases, these books are absolutely packed with explanatory footnotes (or endnotes), purportedly to help the reader better understand what is meant by an unusual word, phrase, or idiom. The impulse is a fine one. But the end result, of course, is not increased understanding but a worse reading experience. You just can't help yourself looking at the footnotes or flicking through to the endnotes whenever called to do so, and so at every turn immersion is shattered; it's like having somebody tap you on the shoulder every thirty seconds during reading to say, "This may be an indication of offerings made to the dead, or of a region of great fertility..." or "This is apparently from the Sanskrit [...]" or whatever. It's mildly interesting. But it's not the story, and eventually the story starts to get lost in the thicket of glosses and distractions.

Reading a work of classical literature, like The Iliad, is like reading a superior form of fantasy fiction, one in which the setting is richer and more detailed and interesting than anything a single person could just make up. The best reading experience therefore is to immerse yourself in it, just like you would with a great piece of fantasy or SF, trusting that you will learn what you need to about the setting via osmosis, and if there's something that went over your head, it probably wasn't important anyway. Footnotes and endnotes almost actively militate against this; the latter are more forgivable because the strong-willed can ignore them while reading and then just peruse them with interest afterwards, but the former are truly beyond the pale.

And don't get me started on Introductions and Prefaces.

Thursday 11 April 2019

Wimmelbilderbucher for Grownups

In a comment to a recent post I lamented the lack of bestiaries-for-grownups in the fantasy/SF genre, by which I mean straightforward ones unlinked to an RPG of some type. There are a few of them (Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings springs to mind; as does Fire on the Velvet Horizon, of course) but not nearly as many as I'd like or think the market would bear; all it needs is for a publisher to give one a punt.

In the same vein, there is surely a gap in the market for fantasy wimmelbilderbucher for adults, by which I mean something akin to Richard Scarry/Where's Wally books but depicting vast, crowded scenes from fantasy settings, full of monsters, strange architecture, and weird goings-on. Each spread a single vista to be explored, whether it be a cross-section of a cave network, the inside of an archmage's tower, a forest or desert or other geographic scene, or a huge battle featuring trolls and giants and god-knows-what else. Wikipedia has a scene from a Brueghel painting postulated as an ancestor of the wimmelbilderbuch that has something of what I am talking about; picture something along these lines but with orcs and derro and it's the Underdark. That's the spread for pages 2-3, and we'll take it from there.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Cockatrice Variants

I love me a petrification monster, and have often felt that you can't beat a good cockatrice for a dangerous encounter. In the early days of OSR blogging I read a hilarious story about a fight with a cockatrice; I couldn't find it when searching for it in preparation for this post, but there's one on reddit which is similar and may have been written by the same person (with less verve than the original telling).

I also made good use of a Peacockatrice (a concept which I think our old friend Melan may have come up with in an post) in an old Yoon-Suin campaign - it had the ability to cause paralysis with hallucinogenic displays as well as petrification-by-pecking, and was found in an archmage's walled pleasure garden. The PCs killed it with slingstones, but not before one of them had been turned into a statue (which I seem to remember sparked off a lengthy discussion on how much a petrified PC would weigh in cn).

What other cockatrice variants could there be (other than the pyrolisk?). Some ideas that spring to mind (stats as cockatrice unless otherwise stated):

Swanatrice: has +1HD and the touch of its beak turns the victim into water rather than stone; he or she becomes in effect a water weird with none of its magical abilities (and could possibly be carried about in a bucket)

Turkeytrice - the touch of its beak turns the victim into clay, which crumbles easily and is dissolved by rain; the other PCs would need to get it to shelter very quickly if they wanted to find a "cure"

Emutrice - has +2HD and Move 180, and the touch of the beak turns the victim into a dried vegetal husk, like grass in the dry season somehow rendered into a human form

Kiwitrice - has -2HD and the touch of the beak turns the victim's mind into that of a beetle, with all the intelligence and ability to communicate that suggests

Secretary Bird-trice - has +1HD and the touch of the beak turns the victim into a dozen wriggling, squirming snakes who immediately flee in all directions

Quailatrice - has -2HD and the touch of the beak causes permanent incorporeality, such that even the victim's voice can no longer be heard, though a faint remnant of his visage remains visible

Tuesday 9 April 2019

On Books and Boys

A friend sent me a text message earlier saying that he'd seen my recent post and had popped into the kids' section of the local library to see if they had any Fighting Fantasy books on offer. The answer was "no". A sign of the times; when I was a kid the library was my number one source of books in general and Fighting Fantasy ones in particular. I don't preach or predict doom for the publishing industry - there will always be books and people reading them. But it's a reminder how much the world has changed, and it makes me feel old and sad and nostalgic for a much simpler age. The texture of life was so different in those days, when a trip to the library on a Saturday morning was something I would look forward to all week; how quaint that concept seems nowadays when entertainment and information is all there at a few mouse clicks' distance.

By coincidence I was in a city centre bookshop yesterday. Waterstone's is booming. You can sense it just walking in the door of my local branch - it's always packed to the rafters. What isn't booming, though, is books for boys. Everywhere you look in the kids' section there are young adult books written by women, for girls. Further down the age scale there's a bit more variety, but not much. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that an alien could walk into the children's section of my local Waterstone's and think there was only one human sex.

It's not fashionable to worry about this - woke capitalism doesn't give a fuck about boys. I do, though.  It's not that there shouldn't have been a rebalancing towards novels in which female characters get more of a chance to shine. Of course there should. It's rather that I wonder what I would do if I had a son and was thinking of how to get him interested in reading. There just isn't much available. It's not even as though I can dig out the books I used to read when I was a boy, because I haven't got them anymore, and were I to do so I'm not sure dusty old paperbacks from 30+ years ago would have a lot of appeal. There's only so long "Harry Potter" can remain a viable answer to this problem, if it ever even was one.

What happens when you get a generation of young men who have had such little encouragement to engage in reading and spend all their time looking at screens? We're about to find out, and I fear it's not going to be pretty.

Monday 8 April 2019

Caverns of the Snow Witch: That Gary Ward and Edward Crosby Look

Caverns of the Snow Witch is in my memory as probably the most enjoyable Fighting Fantasy book. This is so even though I probably haven't looked at the content in, what, getting on for 25 years?

It might be because even after all this time, the art from that book lingers in my mind as being something special and different: as though a Japanese woodblock printer and Russ Nicholson had a lovechild - I can't think of any fantasy art that is quite like it. Take a look at these and tell me that the static nature of these pieces isn't more than made up for by the stark evocativeness of their style:

This is my favourite of the lot. The composition on this piece is stunning:

The illustrators, unbelievably, never did any Fighting Fantasy illos again, and I don't think I have seen either of their work elsewhere. Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, wherever you are - you did a grand job on this one.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Real Life Maps, Hexcrawling, and Rustic Fantasy Names

This post is sort of a follow-up to this recent one. The excellent comments on that previous post got me thinking about this much older piece, in which I put up a link to this truly beautifully-useful tool - a vast library of old maps that you can overlay onto a georeferenced map of Britain for all kinds of different purposes. You can truly waste days, even weeks, playing with it.

But it has a direct use for gaming. Comments on my "Rustic Fantasy" entry mentioned two chief ways that a DM can convey a certain "realness" (for want of a better term) to players - granularity of scale and names.

Here's proof of that concept, and a great way to create the bare bones for a small scale D&D campaign into the bargain. This is a map of the area around Eals, a tiny hamlet close to the Northumberland/Cumbria border in probably the least-developed part of England. It's an area I know well, because I go hiking around there quite a lot and often rent holiday cottages there and thereabouts. The map is an old Ordnance Survey one from approximately 1900, at a scale of about 1 inch to a mile (the level of zoom I used in my browser might not quite make that absolutely accurate, but it's there or thereabouts). The only thing that has really changed is that there is no longer a railway line - it was victim of "Beeching's Axe" in the 1960s - but you would presumably want to ignore that for a fantasy game anyway (although not necessarily!).

So, names first. Part of the reason why I chose this location was because Eals itself is such a wonderful name for a village (what prospective DM would ever think of it?), but check out some of the other place names. Snope Common. Knaresdale. Larchet Hill. Merry Know. Softley. Town Green. Perhaps best of all, The Hill. Bear in mind that this is a couple of square miles in the most sparsely-populated region of the country. Zoom in on literally any other location in England and you will find an even greater density of real names than there is here.

Second, granularity. I spent a few minutes circling in red the potential adventure locations that leapt out at me on this map. Each settlement, obviously, would have some reason to visit it - whether it's because there's a hedge witch who lives there; an outlaw in hiding; a werewolf; a plague of brownies; whatever. So would the church at Knaresdale with its healer-cleric. Then of course there's Larchet Hill with its caves that the local people say are haunted by knockers. And one mustn't forget Knaresdale Hall, home of the Baron Knaresdale and his somewhat impoverished but proud family of eccentrics. But I didn't even circle Thinhope Burn (home of a merrow?), Small Cleugh (with a bridge with a troll underneath?), or Eals Fell (haunted by a banshee?).

You can do a similar exercise with pretty much anywhere in England. You can do Wales or Scotland too just as well, but then you encounter Welsh and Gaelic place names which may be hard for non-locals to pronounce. Once you've cordoned off a small piece of the English countryside, your starter campaign area almost writes itself.

What I also love about this is that the future of the campaign also becomes easy to think about when the players begin to want to explore beyond the immediate region around Knaresdale. What's upstream? What's downstream? What's beyond Eals Fell? Those are concrete questions the players will ask and that the DM then has to answer. Once again, the future then begins to write itself.

Tuesday 2 April 2019

Red and Black and Blue and White...I Can Sing a Rainbow Too

Long-term readers may be familiar with my interest in the notion of mythical beings associated with points of the compass.

While doing some idle wikipedia research for a probably-never-to-be-realised attempt at doing a Herodotus campaign setting, I learned that what we call the Black Sea was actually also known as being "black" in Herodotus' time (despite being called by the Greeks the "Euxine Sea" or "Hospitable Sea"). This was not because of its colour, but because in those days, the colour black was associated with the north. This is also why the Red Sea is known as being red (red being the colour of the south). White was thought to be the colour of the west, and blue the east. (It occurs to me that this may well be the reason why Tolkien's blue wizards went to the east.)

It is striking that the Chinese system was more or less exactly the same, with the Black Tortoise in the north, the White Tiger in the west, the Red Bird in the south, and the Blue Dragon in the east. This may well have beene due to ancient trading routes that existed even before Herodotus's time - it can't be a coincidence - but I also wonder if there is some sort of Jungian collective-unconscious thing going on there too.

Whatever: there are so many ideas that pop into my head at the thought of colours (let alone mythical beasts) associated with points of the compass that it almost gives me a migraine. I expect you are the same. Have at it in the comments.

Monday 1 April 2019

Gamer Tribes: The Saxondale Gamer

There is a certain subspecies of Englishman (or -woman, but it's by far and away mostly -men), which is very distinctive but which to my knowledge has never been accurately labelled or studied. I call it the "Saxondale type", after the main character of the brilliant but sadly unsuccessful Saxondale Steve Coogan vehicle from the mid-2000s.

The Saxondale Type is defined by outfit (jeans, t-shirt - usually a metal band tour t-shirt from a decade or so ago - leather or denim jacket, boots), economic class (lower-middle/upper-working borderline), outlook (phlegmatic and sarcastic), and interests (metal music, beer, probably muscle cars, probably military history, possibly Warhammer, possibly historical re-enactment, possibly wargames). He could be from anywhere but the paradigm example would be from the East Midlands, probably Nottingham. His politics could be anywhere on the spectrum but would tend either towards the UKIPpish, or alternatively Corbynista loony-leftism. He is staunchly against political correctness but it would be unfair to call him bigoted - beneath the bluster and "blokeishness" and sarcastic approach to conversation, he's usually a very nice guy. He is probably of above-average intelligence but has been frustrated in life by having gone to a crap comprehensive school.

Most Saxondale Types are not RPG players but a very large percentage of RPG players, in my experience, are Saxondale Types. Wargame and RPG clubs across the land are absolutely chock-full of them. They are not my tribe, but a lot of the people I played RPGs with in my formative years were putative Saxondale Types. I like them.

The problem with Saxondale Types, though, is that they're not cool, and they are most certainly not the image which Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, or any other major "geek" industry companies would want to cultivate or have represent them. Their faces don't fit. I find this very sad, because their loyalty to their hobbies is unquestioned, and if anybody deserves to be celebrated, it's them: in its lean years the RPG hobby in particular in Britain at least would probably have been economically unviable without them. So here's to you, Saxondale Gamers: I at least identify you, and salute you.