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.