Monday 29 July 2019

You Wankher! Or, Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding

Having read City of the Chasch a long time ago, I've recently moved on to the second volume in Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series - Servants of the Wankh. (Apparently the title was changed in later editions to Servants of the Wannekh to avoid embarassment for readers in the Commonwealth. I have an old pulp paperback version from 1975, so mine has the original title; I have to try to keep it hidden when reading it on the train lest people think I'm reading some sort of xenophilic alien porn story. But I digress.)

Jack Vance had a tin ear for proper nouns in alien languages - his approach seems to have involved just putting jumbles of consonants and vowels together. Pnume, Phung, Dirdir, Coad, Az, Braz...they sound a bit like the kind of species and place names an 11-year old invents. But other than that, it's astonishing how much of an interesting vibe there is to his worldbuilding, for want of a better word. These books are each about 150 pages long and the action is typically Vance-paced and lickety-split. One doesn't get the impression he spent a long time plotting them, or thinking about the world of Tschai in a deep and meaningful way.

But nonetheless, it does manage to feel deep regardless. I think this is because of his expert use of what I'm going to christen Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding - a way of referring obliquely to places, races and things that will never come up again in the story but make the world seem very complicated, rich, and lived-in. Take this section, for instance:

Coad was a busy town. Along the crooked streets, in and out of the ale-coloured sunlight, moved men and women of many castes and colours: Yellow Islanders and Black Islanders, Horasin bark-merchants muffled in grey robes; Caucasoids such as Traz from the Aman Steppe; Dirdirmen and Dirdir-men hybrids; dwarfish Sieps from the eastern slopes of the Ojzanalai who played music in the streets; a few flat-faced white men from the far south of Kislovan. The natives, the Tans, were an affable fox-faced people, with wide polished cheek bones, pointed chins, russet or dark brown hair cut in a ledge across the ears and foreheads. Their usual garments were knee-length breeches, embroidered vest, a round black pie-plate hat. Palanquins were numerous, carried by short gnarled men with oddly long noses and stringy black hair: apparently a race to themselves; Reith saw them in no other occupation. Later he learned them to be natives of Grenie at the head of the Dwan Zher.... Once Traz grabbed his elbow and pointed to a pair of thin men in loose black trousers, black capes with tall collars all but enveloping their faces, soft cylindrical black hats with wide brims: caricatures of mystery and intrigue. "Pnumekin!" hissed Traz in something between shock and outrage. "Look at them! They walk among other men without a look aside, and their minds full of strange thinking!"

This is easily caricatured as akin to the Mos Eisley cantina, but the crucial difference between what Vance is doing here and what Lucas was doing in that scene in Star Wars is that here you get those little extra snippets of pseudo information - names, places - that give the reader a sense that there really is an authentic world out there rather than just a lot of extra puppets and costumes in the studio. These are like tiny little amuses-bouches for the imagination: what's a Siep? What are Yellow Islanders? What's the Dwan Zher and why are the natives of Grenie rushing around with palanquins? You hope you'll find out, but at the same time you're almost happier not to, so that you can imagine for yourself.

I also think it's pretty clear that Vance was making this stuff up as he went along - he probably didn't have the answers for any of those questions yet either, until and unless they became significant. As a way of worldbuilding I think that's surprisingly effective: it makes things seem somehow untidy and illogical, which is of course precisely how the real world (and presumably real "worlds" if they indeed exist).

Pulling this off as a DM is not easy, because it places a lot of strain on one's creativity, but also rewarding: eventually, the PCs might want to find out the answers to those questions, and you're going therefore to have to decide for yourself what a Siep is, where the Yellow Islands are, and all the rest of it. But that's going to be fun for you too - which, let's face it, is all that really matters.

Friday 26 July 2019

"Well," she said, "How can you be killed?"

I have been reading The Mabinogion. Medieval Welsh shaggy dog stories with something bizarre and D&D-able on every page. Here are some ideas for your next game:

"'I will give you a cauldron,' [said Bendigeidfran], 'and the property of the cauldron is that if you throw into it one of your men who is killed today, then by tomorrow he will be as good as ever except that he will not be able to speak.'" (From "The Second Branch")


"After [the feast] Pwyll got up to take a walk, and he made for the top of a mound that was above the court, called Gorsedd Arberth. 'Lord,' said one of the court, 'the strange thing about the mound is that whatever nobleman sits on it will not leave there without one of two things happening: either he will be wounded or injured, or else he will see something wonderful.'" (From "The First Branch")


"Math son of Mathonwy was lord over Gwynedd...At that time, Math son of Mathonwy could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, except when the turmoil of war prevented him." (From "The Third Branch")


"'You know of Math son of Mathonwy's special attribute,' said Gilfaethway. 'Whatever whispering goes on between people - no matter how quiet - once the wind catches hold of it then Math will know about it.'" (From "The Third Branch")


"'It is not easy to kill me with a blow. You would have to spend a year making the spear that would strike me, working on it only when people were at Mass on Sunday.' 

'Are you sure of that? she said.

'Sure, God knows,' he said. 'I cannot be killed indoors,' he said, 'nor out of doors; I cannot be killed on horseback, nor on foot.'

'Well,' she said, 'how can you be killed?'" (From "The Fourth Branch" - I won't spoil the answer; suffice to say you will never think of it in a million years)


"'There is a mound called the Mound of Mourning, and in the mound there is a cairn, and in the cairn there is a serpent, and in the serpent's tail there is a stone. And these are the attributes of the stone: whoever holds it in one hand will have as much gold as he wishes in the other hand. And I lost my eye fighting that serpent.'" (From "Peredur, Son of Efrog")


"'Maiden,' said Peredur, 'where is the empress?'

'Between me and God, you will not see her again unless you kill an oppressor that is in the forest over there.'

'What sort of oppressor is it?'

'A stag, as swift as the swiftest bird, and there is one horn in his forehead, as long as a spear-shaft, and as sharp as the sharpest thing. And he eats the tops of the trees and what grass there is in the forest. And he kills every animal he finds in the forest, and those he does not kill die of starvation. And worse than that, he comes every day and drinks the fishpond dry, and leaves the fish exposed, and most of them die before it fills up again with water.'" (From "Peredur, Son of Efrog")


"The first [plague] was the arrival of a certain people called the Coraniaid. And so great was their knowledge that there was no conversation anywhere on the island that they did not know about, however softly it was spoken, provided the wind carried it. Because of that, no harm could be done to them." (From "Lludd and Llefelys")


"'God knows,' said the maiden, 'it's a great shame that you cannot be rescued; and it would only be right for a woman to help you. God knows I have never seen a better young man for a woman than you. If you had a woman friend, you would be the best friend a woman could have; if you had a mistress, you would be the best lover. And because of that,' she said, 'whatever I can do to rescue you, I will. Take this ring and place it on your finger, and put this stone in your hand, and close your fist around the stone, and as long you hide it, it will hide you too.'" (From "The Lady of the Well")


"Suddenly they heard a noise. They looked in the direction of the noise, and they could see a dwarf riding a big, sturdy horse, powerful, wide-nostrilled, ground-devouring, courageous, and in the dwarf's hand there was a whip. Near the dwarf they could see a woman on a horse, pale-white and handsome with pace smooth and stately, and she was dressed in a golden garment of brocaded silk. And close to her a knight on a great, muddy charger, with heavy shining armour on him and his horse. And they were sure that they had never seen a man and horse and armour whose size impressed them more, and all riding close together.

'Geraint,' said Gwenhwyfar, 'do you recognise the large knight over there?'

'No,' he replied, 'That massive, strange armour allows neither his face nor his features to be seen.'

'Go, maiden,' said Gwenhwyfar, 'and ask the dwarf who the knight is.'

The maiden went to meet the dwarf. The dwarf waited for the maiden when he saw her approaching him. She asked the dwarf, 'Who is the knight?' she said.

'I will not tell you that,' he replied.

'Why?' she said.

'Because your status is not that of a person for whom it is proper to speak with my lord.'

Then the maiden turned her horse's head toward the knight. With that the dwarf struck her with a whip that was in his hand, across her face and eyes, so that the blood flowed. Because of the pain from the blow the maiden returned to Gwenhwyfar, complaining of the pain.

'The dwarf behaved towards you in a very ugly way,' said Geraint. 'I shall go,' said Geraint, 'and find out who the knight is.'

'Go,' said Gwenhwyfar. 

Geraint came to the dwarf. He said, 'Who is the knight?'

'I will not tell you,' said the dwarf.

'I will ask it of the knight personally,' he replied.

'You will not, by my faith,' said the dwarf. 'Your status is not high enough to entitle you to speak with my lord.'

'I,' said Geraint, 'have spoken with a man who is as good as your lord,' and he turned his horse's head towards the knight. The dwarf overtook him and struck him where he had struck the maiden, until the blood stained the mantle that Geraint was wearing. Geraint placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and turned things over in his head, but decided that it was no revenge for him to kill the dwarf while the armed knight could take him cheaply and without armour. He returned to Gwenhwyfar." (From "Geraint, Son of Erbin")

Thursday 25 July 2019

Size and the Inert Sandbox

When I was a lad, I spent quite a bit of time being befuddled and disappointed by the Commodore Amiga game Frontier: Elite II. For those either too young or too cool to have been into computer games in the early 1990s, this was a space exploration and trading simulation which was fairly unusual for its era in being entirely open-ended and, well, sandboxy.

The promise of Frontier has rarely been matched (although it's my understanding that nowadays there are games available which have a similar ambition). Although it came on a single floppy disk its scale was truly vast - it produced procedurally generated galaxies thousands of light years across, with realistic distances between its stars, and complete planetary systems around each of them which could be freely visited and explored. It aimed to accurately model Newtonian physics in the movements of objects in space, and everything in its universe - from stars to planets to space ships - was entirely to scale. It was a truly monumental achievement for its era.

I loved thinking about Frontier; I loved talking about Frontier with my friends; and I loved the thought of getting home from school each day so I could play it. Unfortunately, though, the actual "lived" experience of playing the game was dull. Much of the gameplay was simply glorified arbitrage on a grand scale: buy grain in Planet X at such-and-such a price; sell it in Planet Y for such-and-such-a price and then buy slaves; go on to Planet Y and sell them for a huge markup; buy narcotics; return to Planet X and buy a shitload more grain. Repeat ad nauseum. This was punctuated by fiddly, repetitive space combat which was always either too easy or too difficult, and the occasional attempt to find more profitable trading routes elsewhere, or other things to do such as carrying passengers from one place to another, out of sheer boredom.

The problem was scale. For all its astronomical and physical accuracy and for all of its vast scope, there just wasn't very much going on in Frontier. There was a galaxy of 100,000,000,000 stars to interact with, but there was nothing much other than that. You couldn't get out of your space craft. You couldn't talk to people. You couldn't make friends or enemies. You couldn't get involved in intrigue or espionage. And you couldn't really do much with your money except for buying more commodities to trade, a bigger space ship to carry them round in, and better weapons to vanquish the irritating pirates and other enemies who might come your way. If it had had only 100 stars to visit, but real stuff going on - wars, factional rivalries, interesting NPCs with real motivations - it would have been infinitely more interesting and exciting to actually play.

There is a lesson here for DMs. When it comes to a campaign setting, less is more (within reason). A small hexmap - both in actual area and in number and size of hexes - with plenty going on in it is a far better basis for long-term enjoyable play than an entire painstakingly mapped-out continent with too much space to fill. A 10 x 10 hex map of 1-mile hexes you can stuff to the gills with lairs, dungeons, settlements and interesting NPCs who all know, or know of, each other and have networks of rivalries and alliances as a result. A 100 x 100 hex map of 6-mile hexes takes a lifetime to even key, let alone run, and will feel largely empty and featureless to run. The bigger the sandbox, the more inert it becomes. And the smaller the sandbox, the more enjoyably dense (to the point, of course, at which it becomes so small it is quickly exhausted). When it comes to campaign settings, big may be beautiful, but small is fun.

(You don't have to take my word for it as far as Frontier is concerned: you can download a freeware version of it here. However, I strongly recommend you try the smaller and denser and hence more enjoyable Oolite instead.)

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Dragonfly People

Three or four years ago a dragonfly lay a batch of eggs into my garden pond. We've been occasionally monitoring the growth of the nymphs ever since. Yesterday morning the half-dozen or so which remained (the others have presumably eaten each other or been eaten by frogs and whatnot; I've seen blackbirds take some of them by perching on a convenient reed or water lily and fishing them out with their beaks) all emerged in one go. Or, at least, that's what we assumed from the fact that their final moulted skins are all festooned in the tangle of reeds and other plants which rise up above the surface of the water, looking a bit like sailors climbing rigging. I hope they flew away now that they've got their wings, although I have a sneaking suspicion the same blackbirds may have gobbled them up while they were drying out after their grand emergence.

What an odd life. Born into a confined space with a thousand or so of your brothers and sisters with whom you then have to actively compete in order to survive. Living in the detritus at the bottom of the same murky pond, year after year, hunting the squirming larvae of other insects. Then feeling suddenly compelled one day to clamber to the surface and break free into the air, the sun, the wind - to abandon what one once knew for the complete unknown, and likely very soon the end. To go to face freedom, sex and yet also one's death. (For some reason I see the film version of this being set to Jacques Brel's "J'Arrive". "Mais pourquoi moi? Pourquoi maintenant? Pourquoi déjà et ou aller?" Can you not picture this playing in the background as the nymphs struggle out of their watery prison to face the airy world and their glorious demise?)

Anyway. Dragonfly men. Born into lakes in clutches of brothers and sisters who hunt and fight each other as nymphs: rivals, but bonded in some terrible way such that, at some predefined moment (maybe they all know this; maybe in their religion they believe it is God who decides; maybe there is such a dragonfly god) they will be called together to leave their watery home and fly.... And at that moment, the people who live in the lands around the lake will tremble indeed.

Dragonfly Person

HD 1+1/2+2/3+3 (nymph), 4+4 (adult)*
AC 7/6/5 (nymph), 4 (adult)
Move 120/sw150 (nymph), 30/fly320 (adult)
Att: Bite 1d6**, carry (adult)***
Morale 7
Number encountered: 3d6 (nymph), solitary (adult)****

*Dragonfly people nymphs moult every 5 years, each time growing in size. At the age of 15 they transform into flying adults and leave their lake
**Treat bites as being vorpal, with the capacity to sever limbs
***An adult can attempt to pick up a target and then either take it somewhere to be eaten (all attacks hitting automatically) or simply drop it to its death. Adults have STR 19
****Dragonfly people nymphs may emerge at night to find warm-blooded prey. Though intelligent and able to communicate they do not hunt cooperatively, although they are usually found in groups - their instincts, thoughts and desires frequently align closely, so that they may appear to act as though possessed by some unified will.

Friday 19 July 2019

"Funny Face" D&D Monsters

Have you ever had one of those sticker books which contains a load of blank faces and a random assortment of eyes, noses, mouths and the rest, allowing you to make your own "crazy" characters?

There is a kind of D&D equivalent. It works as follows.

First, you choose a list of monsters. It could be 6, 10, 20, the whole Monster Manual, whatever. For the sake of illustration, let's go with 6: black pudding,  blue dragon, derro, storm giant, harpy and basilisk.

Second, you break your monsters of choice up into their body shape (meaning a very basic physical description), their flavour characteristics (meaning a thumbnail sketch of their "personality" or behaviour), their special abilities (including magic), and their level or organization. Hence:

Third, you roll some dice accordingly - 4d6 in this case.

Let's use some examples. Here I am, 4d6 in my hand, ready to roll.

Monster One: 4, 2, 1, 6. So it is something that looks like a giant, is intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can spray acid and envelop opponents, and lives on its own or in a family. Here, I am imagining something which, while it resembles a giant, is actually something like a slime mold or gargantuan humanoid spore - an amorphous semi-solid colony-type entity which forms itself into a vast and sentient walking monstrosity oozing corrosive and noxious fumes and fluids.

Monster Two: 3, 2, 4, 2. So it is dwarf-like, intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can cast spells and control the weather, and is solitary or lives in family groups. This is perhaps something akin to the Icelandic huldufolk: a race of diminutive spirits who can manipulate the weather and their environment by channelling the magical energy imbuing the natural world - probably in a manner which strikes humans as capricious and cruel.

Monster Three: 4, 3, 6, 3. Another giant-thing, which is a mad, sadistic would-be conquerer, has a petrifying gaze, and forms an empire. All I can say to that is....nice! A race of giants who can turn their foes to stone with a mere glance, and who constantly attempt to use this power to bend entire continents to their will - an endeavour in which they would undoubtedly be successful were it not for their inevitable tendency to descend into hereditary insanity....

Thursday 18 July 2019

On Linnaean and Glaurungian Monsters

Back in 2008, when the world was young, I wrote this post, the essence of which was that modern fantasy tends to sit in between two different poles. On the one hand, there is classicist fantasy (in which everything in the setting is internally consistent and explainable on its own terms, even if it contains magic and monsters) and on the other, romanticist (in which the whole point is the weirdness, the mystery, the fact that nothing makes sense or can be predicted in advance). The quintessentially classicist fantasy writer is probably George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels feature human beings acting in basically rational ways in the world that they inhabit, which contains magic that, even while it is rare and unpredictable, can be dealt with roughly as a form of strange super-technology. The quintessential romanticist writer is probably M. John Harrison, the entire point of whose fantasy novels is to express a kind of illogic or unreality; not even the characters feel as though they are at home in the world that they inhabit.

The classicist tradition is very clearly at work in D&D, particularly when it comes to what I am going to from now on call Linnaean Monster Classification. You know how in the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual there is no individual entry for "dragon", but instead dragons are classified into white dragons (which live in cold places), black dragons (who live in swamps), blue dragons (who live in the desert), amethyst dragons (who live in underground lakes), shadow dragons (who are from the Plane of Shadow), and all the rest? And there is no individual entry for "giant", but instead you get cloud giants, frost giants, reef giants, stone giants, and so on? Most of the truly iconic monsters are given this treatment to some extent or other: they are sliced up, boxed up, compartmentalised and classified, as though there is an actual genus, "dragon", with species within it.

(There are perfectly sound practical reasons for this: it provides more variety for DMs to draw from when filling up their boxes of tricks.)

Compare this with how the dragon appears in, say, Beowulf. (Or The Hobbit, for that matter.) It's not so much that people in 8th Century Scandinavia, or Middle Earth, didn't have the time or expertise to catalogue subdivisions of dragon types. It's that in their context monsters are really monstrous: not just another kind of animal, albeit a very dangerous one, but a thing apart from the natural world - something which does not belong; an interloper; a Thing Which Should Not Be. You get a great sense from this in Tolkien's description of Glaurung in particular as a being whose very presence seems somehow to soil the natural world around him. Glaurung is not of the animal kingdom. Glaurung is a dragon.

Another way of thinking about this is: the assumptions of the AD&D Monstrous Manual are that, if only some sage somewhere had access to all the necessary information, he could provide an accurate taxonomy of dragon species which reflected some underlying biological reality. That is classicism in a nutshell. The assumptions of the Beowulf poet or Tolkien are not that this task would be impossible  at a practical level; it's that the attempt at classification itself would be a category error. You don't think of a monster in that way. It just is.

There is nothing wrong with the normal way in which D&D bestiaries approach the matter. It makes life easier by providing DMs with a wide range of choices for encounters and lairs. But it does, to hark back to another 2008 post, have a banalifying effect. The dragon in Beowulf, or Smaug, or Glaurung, or even Falcor, loom far larger and longer in the memory than the Just Another Gold Dragon of your average D&D campaign. The next time you're thinking of a monster lair to put in your hexmap, think about how you can lean it towards the Glaurungian rather than the Linnaean, and see if it makes a difference to how the PCs interact with it.

Monday 15 July 2019

Greatest Star Trek: NextGen Episodes

I am not a big watcher of TV these days, to put it mildly. Whenever TV comes up in conversation I tend to sit and listen and nod and smile politely at what seem like appropriate moments, and I always give the half-joking response, if asked, that all I watch is Match of the Day and University Challenge. The truth is, I haven't really watched either of them in years either. Basically, what I watch on TV (including streaming services) is a bit of football, a bit of cricket, a bit of rugby, a bit of boxing, some kids' TV, and the occasional indulgence like Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! or Cable Girls or the old Pride and Prejudice BBC series on Netflix.  (My wife's choices.)

The exception is Star Trek: TNG. There is something ineffably comforting for me about Next Gen, mostly because it has such associations with a very comforting era in my life. Whenever I watch it, it seems like I go through some sort of TECHING THE TECH device which allows me to imbibe the original milieu in which I first encountered it across space and time: when I watch Next Gen, I am for those 42 minutes an 11 year old boy again, and it's a hazy summer evening on a Wednesday, and I am sitting in front of the little black-and-white TV we used to have in the sitting room, and dinner will soon be on the table, and Deanna Troi's cleavage is doing strange and wonderful things to me, and I am wishing I could one day be a tenth of the man Captain Picard is. And also, let's face it, it's partly because the whole thing was televisual comfort food to begin with - who wouldn't want to live on the Enterprise?

But it's not just that - watching Next Gen today isn't merely an exercise in bleary-eyed nostalgia. For the fact of the matter is that, for the most part, and for all of its (many) flaws, it is simply bloody good telly: taut, funny (often unintentionally) and packed with narrative - each episode like a coiled spring, quivering with elastic potential energy of plot. Yes, for every Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes or Brent Spiner there is a Michael Dorn, Rosalind Chao or Will Wheaton. Yes, for every "Inner Light" there is yet another episode in which Worf struggles to reconcile his Klingon heritage and human upbringing/Data gets taken over and goes berserk/Riker shags somebody he shouldn't have/Troi has weird dreams and uncomfortable feelings/Something goes wrong on the holodeck/the Enterprise is trapped in a mysterious energy field and can't escape. Yes, for every good idea there are three ridiculous ones. (A species who can only communicate in metaphor? A "best of" clip show when there have only been two seasons? Code of Fucking Honor?) Nobody could call it perfect. But even at its worst it is somehow compellingly watchable.

This watchability stems in no small part from the cast. Casting chemistry is highly underrated, probably because it is so difficult to analyse or describe. However you do analyse it, though, the Next Gen cast had it in spades. They actually look and behave like what they are supposed to be: a crew of professionals who have been working and living together for years. And this gives them an understated bonhomie which is precisely what you'd expect in similar circumstances in the real world. There is no forced melodrama, no shouted confrontations, no childish whooping and cheering when something goes right and no tears and emotion when things go wrong, which seems to be the general approach in modern TV drama. The Next Gen team actually come across like a real team should be (which must surely stem from a great working relationship off-camera as much as from the writing and direction).

With that in mind, rather than come up with a Top 10 List of episodes for TNG, I thought I'd list my favourite episodes for each member of the cast, together with some honourable mentions. You might disagree how much a given episode is mostly "about" the character I've chosen; it's just a personal list.

Picard: The toughest one, because there are probably more "Picard-centric" episodes than for any other character, but it really has to be "The Inner Light". It might be too much of an obvious choice, but sometimes obvious choices are obvious for good reason. It's a fabulous episode. Honourable mentions go to: "Tapestry", "The Drumhead", "Family", "Starship Mine", and "The Perfect Mate" (although my judgement about the latter may be clouded slightly by his co-star in that one).

Riker: The temptation with Riker is to go for episodes which feature him shagging somebody he shouldn't have, especially if that person is a hermaphrodite. But I think the one I enjoy most is "Schisms", which is a nicely creepy SF horror chamber piece that rarely gets mentioned in "best of" lists. Honourable mentions for "Second Chances", "First Contact" and - although this may be a stretch to call it Riker-centric - "Lower Decks".

Data: Similarly, there is an "on the nose" option for picking Data episodes, which is to go for the ones in which he meets/builds other former family members or experiments with being human. I much prefer the slightly melancholic yearning-to-be-human Data to the actually-human Data, and so I tend to like the episodes in which he is simply himself, so to speak. Again, I have to go with the obvious choice, which is "Data's Day" (this may be my absolute favourite episode of Next Gen), but "The Most Toys" - another brilliant episode which rarely gets mentioned in the "best of" lists - runs it very close. Other honourable mentions include "Elementary, Dear Data" and, naturally, "The Measure of a Man".

Crusher: Without a doubt it's "Remember Me", which is beautifully creepy and suspenseful. Is it a coincidence that so many of my favourite episodes lean towards the (admittedly mild) horror tonal palette? The series, as a general rule, did that kind of episode exceptionally well - a tough ask for something that always remained staunchly for the family. Honourable mentions: "Attached", "Suspicions", and "The Host".

Troi: Troi is hard, primarily because of all the characters she has consistently the least to do, and the ones which centre on her character are generally bland at best ("The Loss", for example). I am tempted to go for "Night Terrors", but to avoid choosing yet another horror episode, I'll try instead for "Dark Page" which - if you set aside everything that is bad about it - does at least give Marina Sirtis the chance to do some proper acting. If I was stretching the definition of a Troi-centric episode, I might also include "Timescape".

Geordi: Geordi is often a bit part, playing second fiddle to Data (to mix my metaphors slightly). I have a real soft spot for "Identity Crisis", particularly for the stunningly effective set piece scene on the holodeck with the unidentified shadow; I found it utterly riveting as a kid. But "The Enemy" is clearly superior. Honourable mentions (again, possibly stretching the definition of Geordi-centric): "Galaxy's Child", "Force of Nature", and "The Next Phase".

Worf: The Worf-centric episodes all tend to blur together because they are all so similar and so dreary (what is it about Klingons that makes people actually interested in them enough to learn Klingon?). That said, I always really enjoyed "Heart of Glory", if only for the hilarious escape scene and the way Worf's character arc in it goes from loyal Starfleet officer to potential renegade and traitor in the course of what must surely be less than 24 hours. But then again, what am I saying? Of course, it can only be "Qpid".

Wesley Crusher: Much as I resent the existence of the little prick, there are some good Crusher-centric episodes in the early seasons - I assume because he was the character the adolescent male audience was supposed to identify with. Hands down, the best of these is "The Game", with an honourable mention for "Final Mission" (which almost makes you feel like you'll miss him).

Natasha Yar: "Skin of Evil". 'Nuff said. I hated Yar's character, and especially Denise Crosby's acting, so to have her disposed of in such inglorious fashion (basically giving a minor villain a chance to show off its powers) was exceedingly gratifying.

I can't think of a Pulaski one; most of the time I can barely remember she existed. I can't believe they thought that having a female version of Bones would work out better than good old Gates McFadden.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

The Wizard's Garden

Perhaps CS Lewis is to blame, for making the perfectly-manicured but eerily-empty garden of Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader so compelling to my young mind. Or maybe it's just having been dragged around so many stately homes and gardens by my parents as a child. Whatever: I find the idea of a magical, and/or haunted, and/or labyrinthine, and/or infinite wizard's garden very compelling.

What would the platonic Wizard's Garden, the ur-Wizard's Garden be like? Well, first it would be apparently very pleasant and welcoming, full of the scents of flowers and freshly cut grass (almost certainly with a variety of magical effects).

Second, it would have a maze - perhaps one that is deceptively modest-looking in scale...until you enter.

Parts of it would be overgrown and full of hidden threats.

While other parts would contain ponds and streams and other waterways in which mysterious aquatic beings dwell.

There would be follies, such as a bell tower.

And there would be walled sections behind magical, secret or perhaps even sentient doors.

There would be fancy podiums and raised areas.

Not to mention fountains and statues - none of which, of course, would be what they seemed.

There would be eccentricities.

And wildflower meadows hiding all manner of creatures, objects and ruined buildings.

Not to mention greenhouses full of exotic, sentient plant life and the servants who tend and guard them.

And right in the middle, of course, there would be the home of the wizard himself, surrounded by the garden he created for his own pleasure, or to keep out trespassers - or to lure them in and trap them for eternity.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

After the Collapse(s)

I recently got back from a business trip in Santiago de Chile, home of the fabulous Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. What one cannot help but be impressed by, when walking around its galleries, is that human civilisation is so layered. One culture rises to prominence, then appears to fall, and is then replaced by another - over and over again, like coats of paint being applied and then reapplied to a surface as each wears away. Of course, people at that time presumably had no clear conception of this (we are the Chimu culture, and before us there was the Moche culture, and before that there was the Chavin culture, and before that there was the Cupisnique culture...). But they would certainly have had a conception of living in a world that was in some sense inhabited before them and had within it the monuments, ruins, and items - the cultural clutter, you might call it - of peoples of the past.

By coincidence, I had just finished reading Max Adams' book In the Land of Giants, about Dark Age Britain. In it he describes how people in that era living in England literally thought of themselves as inhabiting a landscape which was full of things that giants had built - not least of which being Hadrian's Wall. Those people did not have an accurate understanding of their history. But they certainly knew that they had one - the stuff of it was all around them.

We have a lot of cultural baggage associated with the fall of the Roman Empire, which makes us think of this aspect of historical change in terms of collapse. A great civilization rises, then falls into ashes, and an age of barbarism ensures - from which, eventually, another great civilization then duly comes into being. James C Scott is persuasive in arguing that this is probably a mistake. What is thought of as "collapse" in most such circumstances was probably a period of comparative liberation and much better health for ordinary people, who were no longer oppressed by the drudgery of economic servitude or out-and-out slavery which they had likely previously been subject to, and had much healthier diets and lifestyles living as so-called "barbarians" than farmers in an early proto-State. 

The Americas in the era after Columbus stand out as probably the most important exception to this rule - the Aztec and Inca empires may not have been pretty, but their collapse was most certainly that, in terms of population loss and cultural destruction. Be that as it may, a D&D campaign set amidst the detritus, the monuments, the ruins and the cities of old civilizations long-gone is one that makes perfect sense: it is the milieu in which our ancestors have lived since time immemorial (and one which of course we still live in today).