Thursday 26 September 2019

Connoisseurs and Cost: A Compromise?

I wrote a slightly crotchety post about the cost of RPG books, particularly OSR ones, a while back, and then followed it up with another. Perhaps this one will reframe things in a slightly more positive light.

My other hobby after RPGs is drinking. That sounds worse than it is. Basically, I like good beer, fine spirits and dessert wines and I enjoy exploring the sensory experiences they offer - not drinking to get drunk but drinking for the palate.

You can think of me as a much less well-off and much less intelligent version of Fraiser Crane with a different job, who likes RPGs and doesn't live with his father and doesn't have a brother or a housekeeper. And isn't American.

The thing about liking fine spirits is - they're expensive. An entry level, probably-not-even-decent single malt is about as expensive as a hardback mainstream WotC book (say, £30).* A decent single malt will be closer to £40. You really have to spend £50 a bottle to get to the good stuff. And I have bought bottles of whisky for £70, £80, £100 in the past. (Of course, there are people who will pay much more than that.)

I am prepared to pay such amounts because, well, I like whisky and hence I think it's worth it. That's because (and I don't meant to sound like a complete twat here, although I'm aware that it's impossible for me not to do so given what I am about to say) I am a connoisseur, albeit of a very minor variety. I am in a position to know what I like, and I have drunk enough whisky to know what won't interest me. Buying two £30 entry-level single malts is therefore probably going to give me less pleasure than a single £50 or £60 bottle; once you can appreciate quality in something you like, quantity ceases to be a relevant measure. So does cost - although of course only within the limits of what you can actually afford.

I was reminded of this recently by doing something I never normally do - posting a comment on Reddit. I subscribe to various drinks-related reddits, including a cocktail one. I am not a massive cocktail fan but I do dabble here and there. Seeing a post by another user, who was using what I consider to be a rather nice single malt to make a cocktail with, I couldn't help myself suggesting that he use something a bit cheaper and a bit less nice with a similar flavour profile, so as not to waste the good stuff.

I should have known better. I was dealing with a cocktail buff, and hence (like me with whiskies) somebody who appreciates quality within the bounds of his hobby. For him, the better the ingredients, the better the cocktail. He's not bothered about being wasteful or spending money - except in the sense that he can obviously only spend what he can afford. What he's interested in is quality. Which is completely fair, and I was completely stupid to poke my nose in to suggest he do otherwise.

You can probably see where I am going with this. For people who are really into RPGs, and who have played a lot and read a lot about the subject - connoisseurs, if you will - price ceases to be an important consideration within the bounds of what they can afford. They want quality. And if that means spending a lot of money on something, on an artisan product like a Veins of the Earth or Stars Without Number, I think that is completely fine and, in its own way, laudable. And it would certainly be hypocritical of me to criticise it.

Where I worry is the occasions when I have sensed that people are not actually buying things because they want quality, but because they feel a compulsion to do it through the fear of missing out, a desire to be in with the in-crowd, or just sheer acquisitiveness and showing-off. I used to see that quite a bit on G+. There is a strand of modern geek culture which has embraced consumerism so wholeheartedly that it has almost come to associate the mere act of spending lots of money on nerd-artefacts as being in some sense sacramental. Clearly one has to be a bit judgmental to feel that way - but I still feel it.

(*You can get great deals which complicate this a bit. 12 year old Highland Park is available in my local supermarket for about £25 often on sale, and it's a perfectly nice whisky. The same is true of the 10 year old Glenmorangie, available in my local Costco at ridiculously low prices.)

Tuesday 24 September 2019

On Redwall and the Flexible Imagination; Or, How Big is a Badger?

Because I have been reading some fairly heavy-density stuff lately during the day, at night for bed time reading I decided to revisit Redwall

I can't have read Redwall in getting on for 30 years, and I've been surprised to rediscover how good it is. Later books in the series are soured in my memory slightly by repetition of plots and themes (and also, let's face it, the fact that your patience for talking-animal series wanes slightly as you age beyond 13 or so). But the first book is expertly paced, exciting, and very charming - even if the main character's overnight transformation from bumbling adolescent into heroic warrior is a bit far-fetched. 

What is unusual about the Redwall books (well, one of many things that's unusual about them) is that its characters are of species ranging in size from shrews all the way up to wildcats and badgers, but their size in relation to one another is not defined. 

On the one hand, these creatures are all part of the same society and inhabit them same buildings and use the same weapons and tools. While you do get a sense that a wildcat is bigger than a mouse, for example, it's still possible for a mouse to fight one with a sword on a roughly equal footing. So, at times, the different species seem more like simply different humanoid races of basically similar size, each of which is based cosmetically on a type of animal found in the British Isles.

On the other hand, though, when it suits the author, "big" animals (wild cats, badgers, otters, etc.) are suddenly a lot bigger than "small" ones (mice, rats and so on) despite the fact they're all in the same social milieu. You get a badger character all of a sudden being able to pull a cart around for passengers in a way that implies it's as big to them as a horse is to us, for example. You also get predatory creatures like pikes and snakes being portrayed as being roughly as big as you would expect them to be in proportion to a human-sized mouse. 

The experience of reading Redwall at a phenomenological level, then, is an odd one. Your brain has to constantly conjure and then re-conjure mental images that are forever changing. On one page, it seems as though everybody's roughly the same size. On the next, suddenly things can only make sense if one character is much bigger (or smaller) than the others. Then on the page after that you're back to having to assume they're about as big as each other. And so on, endlessly. 

Strangely, this doesn't affect the entertainment value of the book, and I think this is evidence for the argument that text provides much more imaginative flexibility than art. If Redwall was a picture book, an artist would have to make decisions about how big the different animal species are in relation to one another, and the reader would from that point onwards inevitably adopt that framework in his or her imagination. Because it's not a picture book, we can read it as taking place in a kind of liminal space in which things are as big as they need to be on one page and then as big as they need to be on the other. The visual imagery your own mind comes up with is consequentially contingent and subject to never-ending revision and reassessment and review. And that's okay. 

Monday 16 September 2019

Yoon-Suin Hardback Version: Errata Help

I am thinking of putting out the much-requested hardback version of Yoon-Suin.
This will not be an all-singing, all-dancing fancy 2nd edition kickstarter, or anything like that, but just a hardback option available alongside the paperback version on Lulu for those who want it.
That said, while the substance of the text won't change, it will be an opportunity to tidy up the layout a bit and also fix ideally all the errata in the existing version. (I'll also update the PDF and paperback versions accordingly and, if I can think of any efficient and easy way to do it, offer a method for getting the updated PDF to existing purchasers for free.)
To that end, can you let me know what errors or inconsistencies you have found in the text of Yoon-Suin? Whether it's just one thing or a billion. Obviously I will be going through the text myself with a fine-toothed comb, but one pair of eyes is never enough for these things.
Either post here or contact me directly if you know how. Thanks!

Friday 13 September 2019

Villainous Animals

Certain animal species are often encountered as the model for villains or evil races in D&D and in fantasy books in general. Off the top of my head, these species are wolves, snakes and spiders. I suppose if an alien from Mars or elsewhere in the universe was asked to pick the most likely three animal species to be selected by human beings as representing evil and/or danger, those would all be pretty high up the list - the alien would just have to ask himself which animals have been most likely to be dangerous to humans over the course of our evolutionary past (and recent history too, of course).

Some distance behind these - the best of the rest, just about picking up the last Champions' League spot - is the ape, specifically the chimpanzee. Chimpanzees make great villains not because they are our Species Enemies like the other three mentioned above, but because they are in a kind of uncanny valley. They look and act rather like us - or, I should say, rather like our children. But they do so in a way that disturbs us. When we see them flinging shit or publicly masturbating or eating people's noses and hands while they're still alive, they look too close to us for comfort. They appear to be telling us, even as they engage in these acts of degradation and savagery: "Look upon us, you who think you are so advanced, and see your TRUE NATURE REVEALED. Only a thin veneer of civilisation separates you from acts like this, and it can be torn asunder AT ANY MOMENT".

That's what the chimps at the zoo seem to be telling me whenever I see them, anyway. I have mentioned it to a succession of therapists. 

Other apes are less effective in this role than chimps. Where a gorilla appears as a villain it arouses our sympathy because of its inherent nobility; King Kong is of course the prime example of this. Gorillas are just far enough away from us to be outside of the uncanny valley and in the territory of awe and majesty. I was going to say that the same is probably true for orangutans, although of course King Louie and Dr Zaius both stand out as radical exceptions to this. 

Next are the kind of animals that monster-creators cast around for when wolves, bears, snakes, spiders and apes have become boring. These are the animals that would be dangerous to us if only they were really big. Lizards, crabs, eagles and most types of insect are the chief examples that spring to mind. Despite the fact that a giant eagle would in reality, I am sure, be terrifying, it is hard in the abstract to get excited by a giant eagle monster because eagles themselves are not dangerous to humans. The eagle simply doesn't strike a chord of danger on the strings of the human psyche. (Or something.) 

Behind these are animals that certainly are dangerous to humans, but which we probably didn't encounter very frequently, if at all, during the course of our evolution, and which have been done to death so frequently in cinema that they now seem like very, very old hat. Sharks and crocodiles comprise the bulk of this category. It also includes bears.  

And bringing up the rear is literally everything else. Seagulls. Porcupines. Mongooses. Camels. Giraffes. Bandicoots. 

It follows that if you want to make a really interesting animal-based monster or "bad guy" race, a seagull or porcupine is the way to go, because if you can pull it off and really make it scary you'll definitely have it made. 

Monday 9 September 2019

The Strange Alchemy of D&D's Genre Emulation

In some ways, "old school D&D" has a laser-like focus on producing a certain type and mood of play. It doesn't feel like this when you read the rulebooks. But it does when you read its main literary inspiration at length. 

In the comments to my last post, Ivan provided a link to an essay Gary Gygax wrote about Jack Vance in the early 2000s. In it, Gary cites some of the ways in which Vance's writing directly influenced the content of D&D. Two of these examples are trite and obvious - the magic and the Thief class. The third is more telling:

Aside from ideas and specific things, the very manner in which Jack Vance portrays a fantasy environment, the interaction of characters with that environment, and with each other, is so captivating that wherever I could manage it, I attempted to include the “feel” he brings to his fantasy tales in the AD&D game. My feeble ability likely managed to convey but little of this, but in all I do believe that a not a little of what fans consider to be the “soul” of the game stems from that attempt.

Gary was "old school" in more ways than one, so he wasn't scared to talk about the "soul" of D&D rather than some bland technical term. I like that sort of language too. He was also obviously attempting to be humble here, so he didn't come out and say that, in play, his attempt to imbue the "soul" of his game with the "feel" of Vance's fiction is often highly successful. 

It is, though. I have recently finished reading The Dirdir, the third in Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series, and I was struck again and again by not only how obvious were the inspirations in it for the "feel" of D&D, but also how this manages to follow-through into what you might call the "lived experience" of D&D players. Not to put too fine a point on it, but basically every D&D campaign I have been involved in has felt like a Jack Vance story without any of us consciously attempting to make it that way. It's as if, by some strange alchemy, Gygax's intentions manage to find effect without ever being stated and without, in many cases, the players even knowing who Jack Vance was.

At times the inspirations are unbelievably direct. In the central portion of the book, the main characters basically act out a D&D campaign, exploring not a megadungeon but an area of wilderness, and searching for "sequins" in the form of "nodes" rather than gold, in a setup which provides the paradigm format for "OSR" games to this day. Here they are arriving in Maust, the settlement on the edge of the "dungeon", which attracts adventurers from all over the world of Tschai:

By noon Maust appeared in the distance: a jumble of tall narrow buildings with high gables and crooked roof-lines, built of dark timber and age-blackened tile...Running boys came out to meet the motor-wagon. They shouted slogans and held up signs and banners: "Sequin-takers attention! Kobo Hux will sell one of his excellent sequin-detectors." "Formulate your plans at the Inn of Purple Lights." "Weapons, puff-pads, maps, digging implements from Sag the Mercantilist are eminently useful." "Do not grope at random; the Seer Garzu divines the location of large purple nodes." "Flee the Dirdir with all possible agility; use supple boots provided by Awalko." "Your last thoughts will be pleasant if, before death, you first consume the euphoric tablets formulated by Laus the Thaumaturge." "Enjoy a jolly respite, before entering the Zone, at the Platform of Merriment."

After arrival, they stop at an inn and haggle with the innkeeper ("For three modest chambers you demand three hundred sequins? Have you no sense of proportion? The charges are outrageous!") and then go to a library to research "the Zone" which they will be exploring for gold:

The side wall displayed a great map of the Zone; shelves held pamphlets, portfolios, compilations. The consultant, a small sad-eyed man, sat to the side and responded to questions in a confidential whisper. The three passed the afternoon studying the physiography of the Zone, the tracks of successful and unsuccessful ventures, the statistical distribution of Dirdir kills. Of those who entered the Zone, something under two-thirds returned, with an average gain of sequins to the value of six-hundred. "The figures here are somewhat misleading," Anacho stated. "They include the fringe-runners who never venture more than half a mile into the Zone. The takers who work the hills and the far slopes account for most of the deaths and most of the wealth."

When the actual exploration gets underway, it even feels a bit like the combat in some D&D campaigns when the PCs have levelled up a bit and are starting to "grind":

There were four slaughters that day, four on the next, five on the third day, by which time the process had become an efficient routine. During mornings and evenings the bodies were buried, and the gear repaired. The business seemed as passionless as fishing...

Mostly the inspirations, though, are subtler and more in the way of mood (or "feel" as Gygax put it). Does this not sound like a prototype for every conversation that has ever taken place between D&D PCs and a prospective "business associate"?

Woudiver seemed in no hurry to have them go. He settled into a chair with an unctuous grunt. "Another dear friend deals in gems. He will efficiently convert your treasure into sequins, if the treasure is gems, as I presume? No? Rare metal, then? No? Aha! Precious essences? 
"It might be any or none," said Reith. "I think it best, at this stage, to remain indefinite." 
Woudiver twisted his face into a mask of whimsical vexation. "It is precisely this indefiniteness which gives me pause! If I knew better what I might expect - " 
"Whoever helps me," said Reith, "or whoever accompanies me, can expect wealth." 
Woudiver pursed his lips. "So now I must join this piratical expedition in order to share the booty?" 
"I'll pay a reasonable percentage before we leave. If you come with us - " Reith rolled his eyes toward the ceiling at the thought - "or when we return, you'll get more." 
"How much more, precisely?" 
"I don't like to say. You'd suspect me of irresponsibility. But you wouldn't be disappointed." 
From the corner Artilo gave a skeptical croak, which Woudiver ignored. He spoke in a voice of great dignity. "As a practical man I can't operate on speculation. I would require a retaining fee of ten thousand sequins."

Does this not sound like a description of every "city of thieves" in every D&D campaign in which one appears?

"A warning: the city seethes with intrigue. Folk come to Sivishe for a single purpose: to win advantage. The city is a turmoil of illicit activity, robbery, extortion, vice, gambling, gluttony, extravagant display, swindling. These are endemic, and the victim has small hope of recourse. The Dirdir are unconcerned; the antics and maneuvers of the sub-men are nothing to them. The Administrator is interested only in maintaining order. So: caution! Trust no-one, answer no questions! Identify yourselves as steppe-men seeking employment; profess stupidity. By such means we minimize risk."

And at times even the conversations between the main characters sound like the sarcastic bickerings of players sat round a table (if a little effusive in their vocabulary):

"He is a notable gourmand and voluptuary, with tastes at once so refined, so gross and so inordinate as to cost him vast sums. This information was given freely, in a tone of envious admiration. Woudiver's illicit capabilities were merely implied." 
"Woudiver would appear to be an unsavory colleague," said Reith. 
Anacho snorted in derision. "You demand that I find someone proficient at conniving, chicanery, theft; when I produce this man, you look down your nose at him!"

And this is even more true when they are squabbling about treasure, as here:

"Look there." [Anacho] pointed. Not twenty feet distant the ground had broken, revealing the wrinkled dome of a large mature node. "Scarlets at least. Maybe purples."

Reith made a gesture of sad resignation. "We can hardly carry the fortune we already have. It is sufficient."

"You underestimate the rapacity and greed of Savishe," grumbled Anacho. "To do what you propose will require two fortunes, or more." He dug up the node. "A purple. We can't leave it behind."

"Very well," said Reith. "I'll carry it."

Or here, where they even start fighting about encumbrance:
"One more kill," said Traz. "Here now comes a group, rich from their hunting." 
"But why? We have all the sequins we can carry!" 
"We can discard our sards and some emeralds, and carry only reds and purples."

But the Vancian "feel" also finds its way in to the structure of the game's ephemera. Nobody involved in writing Monster Manual entries has ever said anywhere (to my knowledge) that they were riffing on Vance. But take a look at this passage from The Dirdir and tell me it doesn't sound like it could have come from the pages of a bestiary, or Dragon magazine (were it not for the sprinkle of sardonic humour, of course, and the fact that D&D bestiary entries are never this imaginative):

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 
"I hope I remember everything," said Reith. 

Playing D&D, in other words, mirrors the experience of reading Vance's fiction very closely indeed, and it happens without this ever being the stated "point" of the designers or generally the intention of the players. It happens through "feel". That is Gary Gygax's possibly unique achievement. Lots of designers explicitly attempt to emulate a genre or piece of fiction through an RPG system and fail. Gygax did it implicitly and suceeded. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.

Thursday 5 September 2019

Did any Appendix N authors know about D&D?

Many of the authors who wrote books listed in the famous 'Appendix N' were dead by the time D&D came out. But some weren't. Off the top of my head, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Roger Zelazny would have been alive, and I presume a systematic check would show lots of others. It is reasonable to assume some of them, maybe all of them, knew about D&D - that some indeed would have played it, even.

Did Jack Vance know that D&D magic was "Vancian"? Did Michael Moorcock know about the "multiverse" and the alignment system? Did Zelazny know that Shadowjack was an inspiration for the Thief class?

If so, we face the curious possibility that some of these writers may, later in their careers, have been writing in awareness of and even in some sense in response to their supposed influence on D&D. I'm curious to know if anybody has any thoughts about that or has read anything about it.

(I will return to "heavier" blogging tomorrow.)

Why Didn't You Tell Me?

There was apparently a recentish kickstarter for a licensed Planet of Adventure/Tschai RPG. Not a sourcebook like the old GURPS one, but a standalone game. It is "powered by the Apocalypse" and Dungeon World (sigh) and in French, but still, an English translation also appears to have been done or is in the process of being done.

Did anybody back it? Does anybody have it? Having just about finished off the last volume of the series, I can say Tschai one of the very, very few settings not made up by myself which I would actually consider running a game in,* and I'm very curious about what the results of this project are like. (This is not a hint at fishing for a copy - I will buy it myself if I can find out how to online, and if it's confirmed to be any good.)

(*The others would probably be Mythago Wood, the Viriconium of The Pastel City, and possibly Lyonesse.)

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Childish Imaginings and the Tyranny of Art

I hadn't thought about this in years, but a comment on a recent post reminded me that when I first read The Lord of the Rings I imagined orcs as having crocodile heads. It is hard to believe there was a time when I had not seen a Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy, or D&D orc. But obviously there was, and in my childish imaginings that was what they looked like.

This would have been in around 1990, I think, when I was still in primary school - about 9 years old. I had read The Hobbit some years before that, and had heard of The Lord of the Rings but had a vague sense it might be "scary". But, while I am not sure I knew there was such a thing as a "fantasy genre", I knew that I was drawn to that kind of book and I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd move on to reading the Rings trilogy. I remember the immediate trigger vividly: a friend of mine had taken The Fellowship of the Ring out from the library and was showing it to me in school. I don't think either of us yet understood there was a concept of a trilogy, and we probably thought the Rings books were like the Narnia ones; there was notionally an order, but you could read them as stand-alone pieces. So that night I went and got out The Two Towers and started from there.

(Starting The Lord of the Rings half-way through is an interesting experience: beginning in media res, there's a lot to figure out, but the narrative isn't harmed at all, and to this day I still think of the main characters of the trilogy as really being Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf and Merry and Pippin. Frodo and Sam's journey still somehow feels like a sideshow, because I was already caught up in the other branch of the plot - Helm's Deep and all that - before I even knew who Frodo was.)

Illustrations and art can be wonderful things but they can also, perversely, be very restrictive of the imagination. When I read a book I tend, like most people I suppose, to built a picture of what is going on in my mind's eye, but it's very hard to do this when an artist's vision has been imposed on you. The crocodile-head orcs were vivid to me once, but now I've seen a thousand pictures of orcs or various kinds, it's hard for me to think of them that way. Not impossible, but it requires mental effort. This problem is made infinitely worse when you've seen a film or televised version of a book: who now can read The Fellowship of the Ring and not picture Gandalf as Ian McKellan, Aragorn as Viggo Mortensen, and Legolas as a petrified piece of cardboard masquerading as an actor? I must have had a picture in my mind of all of these characters as a child, when I hadn't seen an artistic representation of any of them, but they're largely lost to me now.

The tyranny of art is a benevolent and beautiful dictatorship, but it is a dictatorship all the same. The images it conjures in your mind are not your own - they are a piece of the artist's imagination, etched into your brain. Much is gained from this, but some things, like the crocodile-head orcs or the non-McKellan Gandalf, are lost. This is why, sometimes, I wonder whether when it comes to art in RPG books, less is really more.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Occidental Fantasy Gaming (OFG): The Case of the Early 90s SNES

From the period between, say, about 1992 and 1996, I played a lot of SNES games. I didn't actually have a SNES (my parents didn't allow me to have one; my misery-porn memoir about my childhood spent living in a basement subsisting on buckets of fish-heads will include a chapter on this), but it seemed like all my other close friends did, and our social lives tended to revolve around either that or Games Workshop games (or cricket and football for those of us not completely steeped in nerdiness). Most of the time it was Mariokart or Street Fighter II. But every so often it would be something else - something which I now realise was of a genre all of its own: Occidental Fantasy.

Occidental fantasy is a particular type of pastiche of Western medieval high fantasy tropes, made in (usually) Japan. Here, for instance is the bizarrely-titled Knights of the Round [sic], which features up to three players controlling King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival as they, well, basically fight their way through a particularly cheesy 1980s jidaigeki (complete with suspiciously Japanese-looking swordsmanship) with incongruously European furniture.

On a similar theme, but showing that occidental fantasy can be based on Tolkien-esque rather than folkoric tropes, there is King of Dragons, which is more or less exactly the same game as Knights of the Round, but with magic and goblins and the like:

But exhibit A in the OFG dossier is, without doubt, the Squaresoft oeuvre, and chief among these is the original Secret of Mana.

Words can't express quite how nostalgic it makes me feel to watch the first few minutes of that YouTube video, but setting that to one side, notice its key characteristics. The Japanese aesthetic touches (the birds which look like cranes; the fetishization of swords) layered on a pseudo-European foundation; the preternaturally lush green grass and bucolic charm of a British Isles rendered hyper-real by an Asian imagination; that peculiarly East Asian merging of the high- and low-tech; those Tuscany-via-the-Cotswolds cottages. This is the occidental fantasy palette at its most vivid and enticing.

The Final Fantasy series also fill a significant section in the OFG dossier. Feel free to offer your own suggestions; here I have barely even scratched the surface of the iceberg.