Thursday 31 December 2020

Of Sparse and Dying Earths

There is a spectrum of sparseness for fantasy and SF worlds. 

On the left hand side is 'For a Breath I Tarry', the Zelazny short story in which an entire planet is populated by two robots. On the right hand side are the high fantasy worlds of D&D and modern commercial fantasy fiction, which are crowded and thronging with life. Some other examples off the top of my head, going roughly from left to right: Viriconium, Hyborian earth, Urth, Bas-Lag, Mystara.

An observation: as the genre has matured, its settings seem to have tended more towards the dense than the sparse. The big commercial fantasy worlds nowadays are often filled with peoples, cultures, complex societies and economies. (Think A Song of Ice and Fire - there is a lot going on in that world, isn't there? An awful lot of Sers and Houses and people being murdered in novel ways or shagging their sisters.) Those of long ago seem comparatively empty. (At times you almost feel as though Tolkien knows the names of literally everybody living in Middle Earth.) Is this perhaps to do with the influence of D&D and other fantasy RPGs, and the explosion of interest in world-building and monster creation which followed? Indeed, is there a 'structural bias' in D&D towards the dense setting, because of the assumption that there is a large pool of low-level murder hoboes roaming the land, and an infrastructure to support them? 

Another: not wanting to start a politics flame war, but is there a tendency for conservative writers to more readily embrace the sparse setting? A sparse setting is one which is in decline (Middle Earth, Lyonesse), or dying (Urth); a dense one is developing, optimistic, fresh. A sparse setting is one which a rugged individual can make his (or her) own; a dense one is one which leads more naturally to stories of intrigue, politicking, sociality. I've often thought that Jack Vance's old school libertarianism manifested itself most strongly in the geography of his settings, which are big, open, and often so empty of people that there is almost nothing to constrain the ambition or freedom of his heroes. 

A third: this may seem a banal point, but dense settings naturally lend themselves to nerdish pursuits and 'geeking out', because there is just so much more stuff to learn about, to memorise, to know. Middle Earth is perhaps an exception here, because its history is so detailed (and also because after the Peter Jackson films there was an explosion of spin-offs), but generally speaking older, sparser settings are easily summarised and understood, and neither require nor inspire much in the way of homework. 

I feel the attractions of both types of setting. I love the sheer exuberance of a Mystara or a Bas-Lag. But I feel the pull of the near-empty sword and sorcery world, in which every single NPC is larger than life, special, rare, dangerous. One does not need to restrict oneself to beer or wine for all eternity. 

Wednesday 30 December 2020

The Best of 2020

Ok, let's do this. 

Best Blog: The age of the dinosaurs has ended, and the blogosphere is now roamed only by furtive ancestral mammals and scraggy feathered things that will one day approximate birds. Still, Age of Dusk promises the dawn of a new age of mighty beasts whose size may one day rival the titans of yore. This year was a good one for him.

Best Review: The aforementioned's review of Veins of the Earth, which manages to be both readable, detailed, fair, and constructive in critique. (Part I is here; there are two others.)

Best Blog Entry by Somebody Else: It might actually be this, although making it a recent one feels like cheating.

Best Entry of Mine: I have to be honest: this was not a vintage year for my blog. Looking back at the entries I wrote this year, I have the feeling that I was phoning it in half of the time. I'm sorry for that. I quite like this entry though, and this one.

Best RPG Product: The only game product I think I bought and actually read and used in 2020 was Ryuutama, so it wins by default, even though I found it disappointing.

Best SF, Fantasy or Horror Book Read: Jack Vance's The Palace of Love. I read all of the Demon Princes series this year; I liked this one best. Here is my Goodreads review (add me if you like):

There is something profound at work in this book, which like all of Vance's fiction is a deliciously sweet slice of pulp that hints at something much deeper. A meditation on love, identity, sex, power, insecurity, vanity, monomania, and meaning? It's all of those things, and the fact that you can never quite see the results of that meditation - just glimpse them from behind an opaque glass screen, like Falusche's face itself - makes them all the more important. (*What*, though, to those who have read the book, is the meaning of the druids and their tree?)
Best SF, Fantasy or Horror Viewing: Does 'The Inner Light' count? 

Best Gaming Experience: Without doubt it has to be my 'Riding A Giant Tadpole Over a Massive Waterfall and Falling Into a Plunge Pool Full of Giant Pikes' mini-game which I created for Ryuutama (I will put up the rules for this onto the blog one day). Sometimes something you create for next week's session really just pays off. 

Best Cancellation: It has to be the Adam Koebel thing, which even I heard about. I am not a fan of the concept of cancellation, but there is just something too precious about a self-righteous proponent of 'safety tools' in games live-streaming a session in which one of the PCs is sexually assaulted and the entire group quits in disgust. To quote GK Chesterton's introduction to Aesop's Fables: "[S]uperiority is always insolent...pride goes before a fall...and [there] is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks of any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything."

Tuesday 29 December 2020

The Allure of the Apocalypse

I've just finished a bit of light Christmas reading - John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Despite the intimidating title, it turns out to be an amusing, sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny read, but also rather blithe and superficial. Carey's thesis is simply stated. It is that the modernists (DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Jean Rhys, EM Forster, etc.), were almost all dreadful snobs who often entertained fantasies of genocide perpetrated against 'the masses' - and that Hitler's own such fantasies stemmed from a similar kind of snobbery. And, naturally, Nietzsche was to blame. The book is mostly a gleeful collection of quotes cherry-picked for evidence in support of this (deliberately) provocative idea. 

The book is vicious and lacking in generosity. Yes, undoubtedly many of the people Carey skewers were elitists and said silly things in the course of their lives (who hasn't?). But as this goes on, chapter after chapter, one increasingly begins to feel some sympathy for those, like Wells, Lawrence, or Eliot, who worried about the ecological devastation that would follow from overpopulation and economic development, and the corrosive effects of mass consumerism on the culture. Those worries were often expressed in sweeping and over-exaggerated (not to mention ridiculous and sometimes disgusting) ways, but it is hardly absurd to have had them at all. Moreover, I think there is something entirely normal, maybe even natural, about entertaining fantasies of being able to escape from 'the mass' and have the world to oneself. Who hasn't, at times, thought fleetingly about how great it would be if there were no, or very few, other people in the world? (Except perhaps a few attractive and promiscuous specimens of the sex of your choice.) Who hasn't occasionally in an idle moment been struck that it would be wondrous if one could experience, if only for an afternoon, a world after people?

There is nothing wrong with that thought - it doesn't make you an incipient Nazi or psychopath. It is the inevitable, occasional flight of fancy of an individual member of a social species living in conditions of hypersociality in which it can be difficult to feel as though one is important and distinct, combined with an undoubted yearning which each of us feels - some more than others - for connection with a natural world from which we are increasingly alienated. 

An apocalypse would be dreadful. But there are moments when it has its allure. I was struck by this thought earlier today while walking with a friend and fellow blogger on a local tidal island. Windswept, desolate, silent of traffic noise, it was easy to imagine the feeling of being alone in such a place in the aftermath of a war or plague. Just you and the grass, the beach, the sea, the golden sunlight streaming through the clouds onto the hills in the distance - and a few cormorants, oystercatchers and a stray heron minding their own business nearby. Bliss. No, I wouldn't like to live on Gamma World. But it might be nice to visit for a day.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Pathfinder and the Appeal of Crunch

In the comments on this post, Patrick Stuart asks:

Do you think Pathfinder is finally uncool enough that we can adopt it and do the pretentious version?
This was in a response to the suggestion that Pathfinder is struggling, 5th edition D&D having basically eaten its breakfast. 

I have no idea whether this is true or not. What I do know is that Pathfinder's 2nd edition, despite billing itself as being "easier to learn and faster to play", comes in a core rule book 640 pages long, so it really wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't exactly selling like hot cakes. Was this game ever going to appeal beyond the niche of disgruntled players of 3rd edition D&D still upset about 4th edition? It was, in essence, their OSR, so would one really expect it to be much more than a tiny corner of the market once Wizards of the Coast got its act together?

With all of that said, I do occasionally find myself vulnerable to the siren song of playing complicated and crunchy games. I think this is the wargamer in me. A detailed combat system like Cyberpunk 2020's makes tactics really matter in a way that in a faster and looser game they simply can't, and there is a lot of enjoyment to be squeezed out of even very simple fights when what happens is messy and difficult to resolve. You don't get many of those combat encounters you get in D&D (which are a feature of every campaign I've ever been involved in, as a player or DM) when it's late in the session or everybody is keen to move on from the fight and everything just descends into "Ok, I roll to hit...and miss...the orc rolls to hit...he hits...take 2hp I roll to hit..." When combat rules are gritty and complicated, that often serves in itself to make combat feel like it has high stakes. 

At the same time, though, the beauty of crunch is that it provides mechanical variety. In the end, there isn't really a great deal of difference between creatures in an OSR variant of D&D except at the aesthetic level. An orc is basically the same as a hobgoblin, an elf, a dwarf, a bandit, etc. There are, of course, ways to make them interesting, and we've been talking about that for well over a decade now in this neck of the woods. But the fact of the matter is, when monsters have lots of stats and abilities - when, in short, a game is crunchy - then the differences between them are readily apparent, and matter. This has its advantages. It elevates the stakes again; these hobgoblins may look like orcs, but they are not the same, and the differences might surprise you. 

I don't have the time or inclination to sit down and read a 640 page long RPG rule book and properly digest it. But if I did, I have a feeling I might in the end enjoy it. 

The Romance of Central Asia

When I was 18, I spent a summer in Kyrgyzstan working as a volunteer with street orphans. This sparked a romantic flame in my heart for Central Asia which, although dimmed by time, has never been extinguished. 

For a person from a small, wet, green and crowded island on the edge of a continent, there is something unspeakably exotic about the Eurasian landmass to begin with - the empty vastness of it is about as distant from one's geographical experience as it is possible to get without going under the sea, or to the South Pole. Everything about Britain is modest. Our highest mountains are really just big hills. Our biggest lakes are mere ponds. Our mightiest rivers would barely register as minor tributaries of an Amazon or a Mississippi or a Volga or a Nile. Our summers are not hot. Our winters are mild. 

Central Asia is the opposite. Never mind the scale of the mountains, the hugeness of the steppes, the lakes (Baikal, Balkash, Caspian) which dwarf entire countries. The sky itself is bigger there: a great blue gulf that hangs above you, distant and endless and coldly beautiful, under which your affairs can only feel as though they have the most trivial significance if any at all. It's no wonder the steppe peoples of long ago - and today, indeed - made it into their god. How could one not, when it is so manifestly and ineluctably there wherever you go? 

Finding oneself unmoored in this colossal ocean of land, one has the sense of entire societies, peoples, civilizations (Tocharia, Dayuan, Kwarezm, Massagetae, Alans, Xiongnu...) becoming lost in its emptiness, like flotsam borne away on the surface of the sea - slowly but inexorably growing ever distant from each other and all around them as the decades, centuries, millennia unfold. A feeling that human history is nothing more than the comings and goings of items borne on tidal currents washing from East to West and back again, a process with neither beginning nor end nor meaning in between. Scythians, Greeks, Sogdians, Mongols, Turks; there and back again, and the earth enduring under their hooves. This is the truth of it everywhere, of course, but it is only on the galling scale of the Eurasian landmass that one cannot escape it by losing oneself in the crowd, as we in Western Europe do.

This map above all excites me. The Eastern hemisphere in 200 AD. Who needs a fantasy setting when this lies before you? 

But these images manage to do it too:

Thursday 17 December 2020

The State of OSR Adjacency

I am very positive and hopeful about the future of the OSR and those, like me, who are "adjacent" to it. (I hate the word "adjacent", by the way. Partly because of the daft way it's used, but mostly because of how it looks on the page. It's aesthetically nasty. "Eels" is another one, when the initial E is capitalised. It just looks wrong. But anyway.) It is true that blogs are not what they were and there is much less dialogue taking place between the big ones. And G+ has gone. But this is all to the good. For me, the disappearance of "community" and all the crap that went with it is a mercy. (Possibly it exists on Discord, but I never go there and am not really sure what it is.) We can now concentrate on playing and making things for games, and abandon gossip, drama, and social signalling. 

The OSR has won its war. D&D is now free from the clutches of any one company, 'gatekeeper' or owner and is, instead, a freely available and universal pastime like chess, knitting or squash. (Melan has already pointed this out.) This is no mean achievement. No, it doesn't matter a jot in the grand scheme of things. But it is a significant psychic victory in humanity's endless war against the forces of overbearing technocratic order and control. D&D is for anyone who wants it. It has become part of our common heritage.

The beauty of this is that, ironically (because undoubtedly the OSR is partly a market phenomenon and indeed in a sense created a market where there was none before), it means that D&D has become a space unmediated by the market. You don't need to buy anything to do it now. You never did, of course, not really, but now one can say it with a bit more conviction. It is something we can simply share in as human beings. On the level. Together. Me and you and whoever wants to join in. This is a good thing. Just as good is that if one wants to try to make a living at it one can do that too: that it allows one to take advantage of the very humane and beautiful impulse that underpins markets and ultimately capitalism - to trade a thing of value for something one values in return, and thus to make both parties better off from the exchange. That the OSR is both not about money but also about money at the same time is part of what will make it last.

Monday 14 December 2020

Playing Games for Fun is OK: An Argument

[Caveat: I am not sure I agree with my own argument in this post. I wrote it rather rapidly during my lunch break, and, reading back over it, I think there is a possibility that it is wrong and/or unfair. I put it on the blog unedited in the spirit of starting a debate, and nothing more than that.]

I came across two blog posts on Ethics in Strategy Gaming (here and here). The summary: one can experience moral qualms about playing games like Panzer General and Colonization, which cast the player in the role of a willing participant in acts of genocide, enslavement, crimes against humanity and the like. Which, in other words, make being a real-world baddy fun. No clear solution is presented to that predicament. (And it is a predicament. My rule in Colonization was always to avoid war with the natives, precisely becasuse I always felt squeamish about it.) But, and this is the key line:

Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.

In other words, quoting somebody called Gilbert L. Brahms: 'If a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.' Games like Colonization and Panzer General, that is, are doing computer games a disservice, because they whitewash horrible crimes in the name of entertainment. 

Let's set aside the idea that art should have a didactive function (spoiler alert for that debate: didactic art is almost always bad art). Let's also set aside the claim that one can't learn skills from playing a computer game (problem solving, mental dexterity, etc.), thus fulfilling a 'didactive function' of a kind. Let's instead focus on the, to my eye, tendentious implicit claim that there is something bad about games being in a different category to books and movies and other forms of media that are 'allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place'.

When people make statements like that, I always think it reveals a deep sense of insecurity about one's own likes and dislikes. I read books. I watch films. I play games. I also go to art galleries and watch and play sport. I like doing these things for different reasons; they scratch different itches. Why does it matter that some of them are 'allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place', and some are not? Why does it matter that Colonization is not a topic for conversation at an upper-middle-class dinner party, but the latest novel by Zadie Smith is?

Perhaps this is a judgmental and doctrinaire thing to say, but in my view, games by definition are first and foremost about having fun testing oneself, either against a human or an artificial opponent. If you want more than that, you should be reading a book or watching a film instead. Beating up on Colonization or Panzer General for failing to 'aspire to become a work of art' is to commit a category error, just as would be complaining that a game of Sunday league football at the local playing fields doesn't aspire to having 'didactive functions'. (Although try running around in the mud and rain at 11am with a hangover for 90 minutes while dodging two-footed challenges from overweight men in knock-off Liverpool kits that are two sizes too small and tell me that it doesn't have its didactic qualities.) Art is one thing. Games are something else. If you want a game to do more than that, maybe you shouldn't be playing it. Maybe you should read something difficult or listen to some Shostakovich. 

This will sound harsh, probably elitist, probably arrogant. But maybe the problem isn't the infantilisation of the medium. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the infantile pleasures of playing a game for nothing more than the fun of it. Maybe the problem is just that you're not doing enough grown-up things to leaven the bread in your life and provide a counterbalance. 

Friday 11 December 2020

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws Triptych - On Imaginary Worlds

I receive, daily, hundreds of emails clamouring for more news about Behind Gently Smiling Jaws.* 

The project has evolved. This is because I have come to a conclusion about imaginary worlds: you can make people care a great deal about what happens in an imaginary world (like Middle Earth), but you can't make people care a great deal about imaginary worlds within imaginary worlds (like, say, what happens in a series of fantasy novels written in-universe by Frodo Baggins). You might enjoy reading about them, but only in a slightly arch, academic kind of way. There is one too many levels of remove. What happens within the dream-world of a crocodile which itself inhabits an imaginary world has a similar kind of feeling to me. It is an intriguing concept but hard to get interested in as a place to run games.

The only solution is to imagine the pre- and post-apocalypse that occurs when what is inside the crocodile's head gets out into the real world

This means a three-volume set:

  • The pre-apocalypse. Beings from the crocodile's mind are manifesting themselves in the real world - or are they? The PCs belong to, or are introduced to, a hidden underworld of investigators, scholars, conspiracy theorists and paranomal enthusiasts trying to find out The Truth.
  • The post-apocalypse. Flocks of billions of man-sized birds darkening the skies. Goetic demons stalking abandoned shopping malls. Armies of early hominids marching across the land in the furtherance of a holy crusade they are incapable of understanding. Ghosts of dinosaurs hunting in the ruins of deserted cities. Frog-men worshipping Chinese dragons in mountain temples. You get the drift. 
  • The new reality which is ushered in. The Naacals have brought the Unremembered City back into the physical realm, and have begun to use it to colonise the stars. 

So, basically, something a bit like Call of Cthulhu, something a bit like Gamma World, and something a bit like Traveller, all in one slipcase. 

*This sentence may not be entirely accurate.

Monday 7 December 2020

Gaps in the Market

 An incomplete list of things somebody (not me) should make:

  1. A grown-up fantasy wimmelbook (think Where's Wally? but hugely detailed battle scenes, crowd scenes in bizarre cities, elaborate buildings thronging with strange inhabitants, etc.). 
  2. An OSR pseudo-Shadowrun but using Labyrinth Lord or your OSR ruleset of choice. D&D somehow doesn't quite work with a modern setting (as anybody who has played d20 Modern will attest), but  I am imagining something less like Shadowrun's mashup of fantasy with cyberpunk, and something more like D&D races and magic and monsters suddenly appear in the real world, tomorrow - so why not try to make that with D&D-based rules?
  3. A series of detective novels (more along the puzzle-solving lines of Poirot, Brother Cadfael or Father Brown than the "let's get depressed about how terrible the human race is" lines of Wallander or Rebus) set in a D&D world, where the mysteries revolve around the cunning deployment of D&D spells, monsters, and so on (The Strange Case of the One-Eyed Vrock and the Misdirected Prismatic Spray, anyone?).
  4. D&D: Total War or something like it.
  5. A huge book filled with hundreds of maps of imaginary places. No introductory text. No fluff. Just maps and place names. I would buy it. 

Wednesday 2 December 2020

How Tough is a First Level Fighter?

It is, my friends, time to return to this most ancient of chestnuts. Is a 1st level fighter a blithering mook, at the start of his adventuring life, or an already-established, decently competent soldier? 

In one sense, of course, the question is moot, because the answer is entirely relative. A 1st level fighter is as tough as a 1 HD monster (say, an orc). How tough is an orc? However tough you want it to be. It could be along the lines of a Warhammer goblin, or along the lines of a Warhammer black orc; it's really up to you. And this is partly to the good, because it's one of the things that makes D&D so gloriously flexible. Your game can be at the starting power level of The Hobbit or at the starting power level of The Malazan Book of the Fallen in your imagination, but whichever it is, it will begin at the same level, with the same rules. It's just in how you imagine what 1 HD, and therefore 1st level, represents. 

Take the following scene, from Mythago Wood. Which do you think is the 1st level character here - the narrator, or the man who defeats him?

And then all around us the woodland burst into brilliant fire, the trunks catching, the branches, the leaves, so that the garden, was surrounded by a great, roaring wall of flame. Two dark human shapes came bursting through that fire, light glinting on metal armour and the short-bladed weapons held in their hands. For a moment they hesitated, staring at us; one had the golden mask of a hawk, its eyes mere slits, the ears rising like short horns from the crown. The other wore a dull leather helmet, the cheek straps broad. The hawk laughed loudly.  
‘Oh God no ... !’ I cried, but Guiwenneth screamed at me, ‘Arm yourself!’ as she raced past me to where her own weapons were lodged against the back wall of the house.  
I followed her, grabbing up my flintspear and the sword that Magidion had presented to me. And we turned, backs to the wall, and watched the gruesome band of armoured men who emerged, dark silhouettes, through the burning forest, and spread out around the garden.  
The two warriors suddenly ran at us, one at Guiwenneth, one at me. It was the hawk who chose me.  
He came at me so fast that I hardly had time to raise and thrust my spear at him; the events happened in a blur of burnished metal, dark hair, and sweaty flesh, as he deflected my blow with his small round shield, then clubbed me heavily on the side of the head with the blunt pommel of his sword. I staggered to my knees, then struggled to rise, but the shield was struck against my head and the ground hit my face, hard and dry. The next I knew he had tied my arms behind my back, worked my spear under my armpits, and trussed me like a turkeycock.

There is no right answer to that question, of course: it just depends how you frame your campaign.  

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Vignettes About Adventure

Self-direction may be recognised not only to be useful, to be a source of considerable happiness, and to make life more interesting and entertaining for everybody, but to be also an important virtue. And where personal autonomy is thus given a place in a moral practice, conduct will be recognised to have an excellence simply in respect of its authenticity and perhaps to be, in part, justifiable in these terms. - M. Oakeshott, On Human Conduct

Generally the risks were taken, for, on the whole, it is better to be a little over-bold than a little over-cautious, while always there was a something inside urging you to do it just because there was a certain risk, and you hardly liked not to do it. It is so easy to be afraid of being afraid! - A. Cherry-Garard, The Worst Journey in the World

It displayed itself in the persons of younger sons making their own way in a world which had little place for them, of foot-loose adventurers who left the land to take to trade, of town-dwellers who had emancipated themselves from the communal ties of the countryside, of vagabond scholars, in the speculative audacities of Abelard, in venturesome heresy, in the lives of intrepid boys and men who left home to seek their fortunes each intent upon living a life for a 'man like me', and in the relationships of men and women. It was reflected in the Latin and vernacular poetry of that memorable spring-time of the European spirit, in the singers and the songs of the Provencal idiom and in the admired characters of the men and women celebrated in the Chansons de geste: the proud and reckless autonomia of Roland which makes Roncevalles a memorable event in the history of European moral imagination, and the note of his horn an imperishable utterance, echoing down the centuries. And it was expressed in the morality of the Christian Knight (Parzival or Gawain) whose calling it was not to win victories, but to show triuwe, fidelity, in every human situation. - M. Oakeshott, On Human Conduct

“I cant back up and start over. But I dont see the point in slobberin over it. And I cant see where it would make me feel better to be able to point a finger at somebody else… How I was is how I am and all I know to do is stick. I don’t believe in signing on just till it quits suitin you.” - John Grady, from C. McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

But with the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right... and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it... howling through a turn to the right, then to the left, and down the long hill to Pacifica... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. - Hunter S. Thompson, Hell's Angels

“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” - JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. - A. Cherry-Garard, The Worst Journey in the World

But they floated on a rising tide; it was a moment when this disposition burned with a 'hard gem-like flame' and it received its classic expression in the Essais of Montaigne and (more formally) in Charron's De la sagesse: a reading of the human condition in which a man's life is understood as an adventure in personal self-enactment. Here there was no promise of salvation for the race or prevision that it would late or soon be gathered into one fold, no anticipation of a near or distant reassemblage of a 'truth' fragmented at the creation of the world or expectation that if the human race were to go on researching long enough it would discover 'the truth', and no prospect of a redemption in a technological break-through providing a more complete satisfaction of contingent wants; there was only a prompting not to be dismayed at our own imperfections and a recognition that 'it is something almost divine for a man to know how to belong to himself' and to live by that understanding. - M. Oakeshott, On Human Conduct

The point, one begins to see, was not merely to survive; it was to come through intact, true to one’s most decent self — in short, to survive as English gentlemen. - A. Cherry-Garard, The Worst Journey in the World

I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.” - Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

Thursday 26 November 2020

Fantasy and the Human Condition

We have far too much of this kind of article in our lives: the random and semi-plausible armchair ponderings of somebody whose only real qualification for public pontificating is that they are reasonably intelligent and articulate. We are surrounded by noise and get almost no signal.  

It's not that I think that trying to understand developments in the arts and literature in their context is without any purpose or interest. Undoubtedly there are many factors that influence why particular genres become popular at particular times. And I'm sure I've written many blog posts along those lines down the years. But we've become too caught up in considering context, and as a result downplay the importance of quality and authorial voice too much. 

Is it maybe the case that the fantasy genre became popular in the mid-20th century not because of the decline of epic poetry, the Cold War, the death of the age of reason, or any other particular social, political or economic factor - but simply because Tolkien wrote a great book and people liked it and wanted to imitate it?

And maybe the reason why they liked it was because it speaks to the human condition - that themes of heroism, of good triumphing over evil, of coming of age, of risk and adventure, happen to be things that people enjoy reading about in general? 

I am much more interested in reading about why The Belgariad is good (an assertion that strikes me as at the very far side of what can fairly be called sane) than I am in learning about what it says about its context (and even less about what it says about the person reading it). 

The Creative Process in Role Playing Games

Iain McGilchrist is probably the most important contemporary thinker, and last night I listened to a good two part interview with him, here and here. One of the themes in his work is how creation requires hard limits and barriers in order to take place at all. I have written on that theme before on this blog in my own small way (see e.g. this post and this one), and it occurred to me on listening to the interview that there was, yes, yet more to say about it as it relates to RPGs.

McGilchrist describes how creativity functions on the basis of limits which are not necessarily externally imposed but can come from the process itself. Hence, a river's flow creates banks which themselves then act as limits on the flow, which further influence how the river develops, produce eddies and currents, and so on. The best example of this, though, I think, is language. Language is a creative process, whose own limits produce the act of creation. 

What do I mean by this? Utter a single word: 'The'. From a completely open range of possible utterances, we have picked one, which itself then limits what can come next. The next word must be a noun or gerund or adjectival complement, trivially, but the subject matter of the utterance is also constrained: the definite article has been used, and not the indefinite one, for example - and that will limit all that follows. Pick a word to follow it: 'man'. Now we are even more limited - we know that the subject of the utterance is an adult male human being, as opposed to all of the other myriad possibilities which it could have been ('fox', 'apple', 'ant', 'Greek', 'big', and so on), and this also further restricts what follows. With each subsequent word, 'bit', 'the', 'dog', we see this closing off and narrowing of possibilities, so that what began with literally anything becomes, with each word, something definite and specific through a process of limitation and restriction: a specific adult male human being biting a specific individual of the species canis familiaris.

The crucial point here is that for the creative act to take place at all it must both contain and consist in its own capacity to restrict itself. Creativity is not the unbridled exploration of a free horizon of unlimited scope. It is quite the opposite. It is a process which is carried out through the imposition of limits (from within itself). 

How is this relevant to RPGs? Well, there are a thousand ways, and I don't have a thousand hours with which to write this blog post, so let's just think about three.

Process. The structure of playing an RPG has the character I described above. One sits down with friends. What shall we play? D&D. A decision is made that restricts potentialities (we will not be playing SF, or contemporary horror, or a detective game). What do we do then? Create PCs. The creation of PCs results in picking options which impose further limits (I will be a fighter, as opposed to a magic-user or cleric; I will arm myself with a bow, as opposed to a spear or sword). The game begins. The PCs are in a tavern (not in a public baths or a castle, not on a beach or underwater). They hear about places to adventure. They pick one (and not the others). They go there. They enter a dungeon. They go left instead of right or straight on. And so on. Put in a very abstract way, the process of playing an RPG is an iterative one in which many possibilities present themselves, but which necessarily close off a great many more others, and in which that model repeats itself indefinitely. 

Dice. The very act of rolling dice is one of closure, but which in doing so produces consequences and hence creative flow. My PC confronts a violent orc. He decides to try to hit it with his sword (not talk to it, not kiss it, not eat it, not throw dust in its eyes, etc.). He could hit, he could miss. The dice closes off one option and tells us it's the other. It restricts possibilities to one. And then that thing happens, and we follow the results. Narrative emerges. Creation happens.

Genre. What's our next campaign going to be, guys? Purple space baboons trade in shellfish on the moons of Neptune? Moles hunt earthworms? Demons made from flowers invade from floral hell? We could play anything. We are paralysed by indecision because, given the infinity of choice available, we will spend the rest of our lives merely listing the possibilities. Or: we can pick a genre, which contains its own constraints of both form and content, and which hence brutally limits us, but in such a way that the actual creative act - the game - can happen at all. We are playing high fantasy, not purple space baboons or moles underground or flower demons from hell. We must have orcs and dragons, swords and spell-books. But now the potential inherent in the sitting-down-to-play-a-game has a fighting chance of being actualised rather than lost in an endless array of never-to-be-realised possibilities. 

Tuesday 24 November 2020


Patron demigods were brought to the Great North in their thousands by the Emperor’s servants during his reign, each being given purview over a tiny sliver of public or private life - a road, a house, a family, a field, even a single room. Many have faded into nothingness now that their cults have disappeared and the places which they inhabited have fallen into ruin. But there are those which remain, often in the most unlikely places: a forgotten cellar on an urban street; a small shrine hidden in a  barn; a toppled statue in a copse of oak in a hidden fold of land; a narrow lane running from nowhere in particular to nowhere special. Some of them are sorrowful, some are imbued with rage, while others have long gone mad; a few, though, retain the devotion to protective care which they were originally given, and exercise it still. 

Each lar has a type, a character, and an archetype. The type gives some core stats and abilities. The archetype adds others. The character provides hooks.






Lar praestitis

Lost - longs for its cult and has become mournful; it may be befriended if given new worshippers

Youthful hero



Lar vialis

Angry - rages against mankind for its abandonment; it may be being placated by locals with sacrifices

Beatific female



Lar militaris

Benevolent - continues to bestow blessings in return for offerings




Lar ruralis

Insane - capricious and destructive, or bewildered and distant; it may have come under the sway of a grindylow, barghest or other similar force



Lar domesticus


Lar compitalicus

Megalomaniac - determined to become a god in the truest sense; it schemes to amass power



Lar augustus

*Only roll in this column if the type has not yet been determined or is not obvious from the lar's location.


Lar praestitis - a guardian or sentinel over a significant location or item, such as a temple, fortress, buried treasure, imperial artefact, etc.

HD 9+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C10, TT [?]

*Can cast holy word, animate object, conjure animals and flame strike 1/day

*Can cast sticks to snakes, continual light, glyph of warding, bestow curse, prayer, hold person, silence 15’ radius and cause fear 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar vialis - a protector of a single road, and those travelling on it. 

HD 7+1, AC 3, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast control weather, earthquake, wind walk, quest 1/day

*Can cast control winds, find the path, prayer, cause blindness 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 10th level cleric

Lar militaris - a patron of soldiers and those bearing arms.

HD 9+3, AC 0, ML 12, Save as F12, TT [?]

*Can cast blade barrier, flame strike, 

*Can cast spiritual hammer, call lightning, prayer, cure critical wounds, cure serious wounds, protection from evil, protection from evil 10’ radius 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar ruralis - a protector of a single field or group of fields.

HD 8+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast control weather, conjure animals, animal summoning III, fire seeds, control winds, creeping doom, commune with nature 1/day

*Can cast insect plague, plant growth, summon insects, sticks to snakes, entangle, prayer, animal summoning I and animal summoning II 3/day

*Casts all spells as an 11th level cleric

Lar domesticus - a protector of a single building or room.

HD 7+1, AC 3, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast symbol, finger of death, feeblemind, dispel evil, flamestrike and quest 1/day

*Can cast protection from evil 10’ radius, continual light, prayer, remove/bestow curse, hold person, silence 15’ radius, spiritual hammer and darkness 15’ radius 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 10th level cleric

Lar compitalicus - the patron or warden of a village or neighbourhood.

HD 9+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C10, TT [?]

*Can cast regenerate, resurrection, cure critical wounds, heal, weather summoning, control weather, fire storm and control winds 1/day

*Can cast dispel evil, cure disease, prayer, remove/bestow curse, cure serious wounds, purify food & drink, and flame strike 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar augustus - a lar of the Emperor’s own cult. 

HD 12, AC -2, ML 12, Save as C14, TT [?]

*Can cast animate rock, fire storm, conjure animals, divination, dispel evil, holy word, quest and conjure fire elemental 1/day

*Can cast command, prayer, dispel magic, remove/bestow curse, protection from evil 10’ radius, animate dead and hold person 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 15th level cleric


Youthful hero - the lar appears as an adolescent boy of haughty demeanour, fierce-eyed but solemn, and often bearing a drinking horn. 

#ATT 3, DMG By weapon (sword, spear)+4, Move 150

Beatific female - the lar appears as a woman with an expression and bearing of endless patience and kindness. 

#ATT 2, DMG By weapon (staff, dagger)+2, Move 150

*Can cast charm person 3/day


#ATT 3, DMG 1d8+2/1d8+2/1d8+2, Move 180

*Can cast animal summoning I 1/day in addition to other spells, only summoning wolves


#ATT 2, DMG 1d8+2/1d6, Move 60 (Fly 360)

*Can cast lightning bolt 3/day in addition to other spells


#ATT 1, DMG 1d8*

*Bite causes death within 1d3 minutes on a failed save vs poison, with a -4 penalty

Thursday 19 November 2020

The Love of Mapping and the Beauty of Hexographer


I love Hexographer, and I love Hexographer maps. More than that, though, I love the exercise of map-making. 

I would like to say that this is because making maps spurs me to imagine far off places, fills my heart with the romance of travel and adventure, and makes me long to get on a boat and sail to some far-flung location filled with bizarre animals and alien cultures. 

It does do those things. But, the truth is, more than that, it makes me feel like a god. Watch, as I raise mountains and fill oceans! Watch, as I send rivers slicing through hitherto barren landscapes! Behold, as I cause mighty jungles to grow with a mere sweep of my pen! See me build entire civilizations with my mind - and then destroy them!!!!

How much of the average RPG gamer comprises wide-eyed, imaginative love of wonder, and how much comprises frustrated megalomania and control freakery? Answers on a postcard...

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The Imagination in Times of Lockdown

The UK is currently in a 'second lockdown'. What this means in practice is: you can still go out freely and meet people outdoors (the rules on this are complex; nobody really follows them) but most of the shops are shut. You can go to a supermarket, or to a garden centre, or to a kitchen fitter. But you can't go to a bookshop. For some reason the local dog grooming salon down the road from my house is open and doing a roaring trade; the hair salons and barbers are all closed. (One aspect of British culture has not changed: dogs are still more important than people.) Parks and beaches are thronged with families enjoying the fresh air, even in the frigidity of November, because there's fuck all else to do. What has been achieved by the government can be summarised as: few of the purported public health benefits of 'locking down', but most of the economic costs. 

Richard Condon once said it was useless to try to understand the motives of the kind of people who seek and attain high public office. You might as well try to understand the motives of reptiles or space aliens. They want power. That is all you need to know. 

Walking to work through the centre of town each morning, I see people queuing at banks or at coffee shops, or simply wandering aimlessly about in the desolate ruin of what was once a society. This puts one in mind of running a post-apocalyptic game. Not Gamma World exactly; maybe more like something along the lines of Escape from New York but you can still go to Pret or Starbucks. 

My walk takes me through the main shopping street and then over a motorway bridge to my office - a deserted wasteland of empty cathedrals of commerce. Technically I'm supposed to be 'working from home' and can only go in with special permission; there are about a dozen of us, myself and some colleagues, who worked out back in October that nobody bothers to verify this and our keycards still get us in the building. We prefer to go in physically rather than 'live at work'. These are my band of brothers and sisters; these are the kind of person you would want beside you in the trenches. Now, one feels like running Cyberpunk 2020.

When the day is done, after hours sitting in the eerie peace that descends on an office building when there are about three occupants per floor, I know instead that what I really want is to run a game of Traveller, or Stars Without Number, or a Thousand Suns. To imagine what it was like to be free, to travel, to explore; how it was to live my life on my own terms, to take responsibility for my own conduct and my own goals, and to accept death and risk as the consequences of life truly lived. To imagine liberty. 

Monday 16 November 2020

In Praise of Formula

'Formulaic' is a four-letter word in criticism of books, films, music. We all know how dispiriting it is to encounter a work of art which holds no surprises because we've seen it done a thousand times before.

But there is nothing wrong with a winning formula. I was struck by this yesterday after finishing The Book of Dreams, the last in Vance's Demon Princes series. Each of these books is, in essence, the same. Once you've read the first two, you know roughly how things will turn out. The joy comes not from being surprised by the basic structure of the plot - rather, the opposite. It comes from knowing how things will turn out and being gratified in watching it unfold. As our hero triumphs - the outcome never in doubt - we, the readers, bask in reflected glory. We feel as though we are in on things. When Gersen gets the girl and kills the bad guy, we feel pleasure because we're on his team and we're watching the universe unfold as it should.

This is the secret of Columbo's success. Alone among big name police procedurals, Columbo is a about inversion. You know who did it. You're just waiting to discover how Columbo works it out. The pleasure comes from already knowing the truth and then having your knowledge confirmed. It seems to take advantage of some flaw in our psyche, allowing our lizard brains to take satisfaction from having correctly predicted the course of events even though our conscious minds know that we cheated and had the facts in advance. 

Formula here is reassuring, comforting, gratifying. There are only five volumes in the Demon Princes, but I could happily have read 50.  

The question rightly will be raised: how does one draw a distinction between good formula as I have identified it here, and bad 'formulaic' things which the critics justifiably pooh-pooh? I think it is straightforward. An established format deriving from the repetition of a certain plot structure in a particular series of books, TV shows, films, etc., can be good. The repetition of themes in unrelated works of art is usually bad. It's the difference between Columbo, which set up a formula in its first episode and followed it for the 68 that followed, and Diagnosis: Murder, which added nothing to the hundred thousand detective series that went before it.  

Tuesday 3 November 2020

A Map

Not a finished product but a draft to show to the person who will be drawing the real thing. The red borders are the regions of the Great North, each with its own chapter in the book. There is provision within for every one-mile hex to have at least one thing of interest in it, arranged to taste.

Thursday 29 October 2020

We Need Long Campaigns

Pay close attention to what has happened to your mind. You are beset, besieged, bewildered by notifications from your phone, your social media accounts, your emails. You are unable to sit at a computer for longer than 10 minutes without giving in to the relentless need to check, something, anything, nothing. You switch on the TV but can only tolerate a minute or two of what you're watching before the urge to fiddle with some electronic device becomes overwhelming. You open up YouTube or Netflix and flick between short videos, chopped up segments of longer ones, that can hold your attention only for a moment before you move on to something else. You spend hours each day, if you tot up all the fragments of time here, there and everywhere, scrolling Twitter or Facebook feeds, or scanning over news websites, or swiping right on Tinder. You are not really living, and you know it. You can picture yourself on your death bed, looking back at your life and regretting how much time you spent on passive time-wasting bullshit, but you still can't shake your bad habits - and anyway, there's always another tweet, text message, email or TikTok to salve the ennui for another second or two. 

Cultivating the capacity to concentrate, think, and plan for deep, long, rich periods of time has never been more urgent than now. We slide toward dystopia. What we do with our inner lives has always mattered, but now it matters more. 

We need long campaigns. We need to sit down with the same group of people on a regular basis over the course of years, telling the kind of stories which require concentration and thought and, above all, loyalty; stories which gain their own momentum through peaks and troughs, ebbs and flows, ups and downs and ins and outs; stories in which the events which happen matter because they have a context and a background and an unknown future waiting to be discovered. We don't need the inconsequential frippery of the one-shot; we need time.

When Rachmaninoff wrote his 18th variation of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, he knew that he had a hit. "This one is for my agent," he said. It was a flip remark, but he was hitting on something that mattered. The 18th variation is justly famous, but taken on its own it is candyfloss. It is pop music. It is 3 minutes that make you feel a bit of a warm fuzz before you skip onto the next thing. It is mass market. But take it in its context, somewhere in the middle of a difficult and complicated 23 minutes of virtuoso concertante playing (not the crescendo, not the culmination, but almost shyly hidden), it is something else altogether: a moment of dizzying transcendent beauty in the midst of something moody and intellectual and strange. Like a gap between dark clouds through which a ray of golden light gleams for a moment before being once more concealed. A taste of some vast ocean of feeling the content of which can be communicated only in the smallest of wordless doses, lest it overwhelm you and the player herself. You have to work to get this feeling - you have to put in the time. But which is best: to sit with eyes closed and really listen for the payoff, or to gorge yourself on a YouTube clip (the modern day equivalent of a Best Classical Music EVER! CD album) before moving on to the next treat?

Rachmaninoff knew this about music. Listening to Stravinsky's The Firebird, whose moment of climax is one of the great eucatastrophes in all of Western art, he was moved to remark, "Great God! What a work of genius this is!" You can only identify it as a such when you have been on the long, difficult, sometimes dissonant, always challenging journey with Prince Ivan, Kaschei the Immortal, and the Firebird herself; when you have put in the hours (the minutes, anyway). The music repays your effort, your focus, your loyalty. If you don't, all you get is a cheap and meaningless thrill - a triumph of thought and feeling and taste reduced to a bit of ASMR-inducing fluff. 

Almost everything worth doing, knowing, reading, hearing, feeling or saying in life has the character of being unobtainable via shortcuts except in a form which diminishes both you and it. Why would you expect RPGs to be any different? 

Sunday 25 October 2020

An Introduction

What does one do when it is a Saturday night (the worst time for blog traffic)? Certainly not post a content-only post (the worst type of post for blog traffic) on one's blog. Right? Wrong. Here is the introduction to The Great North, which is the final title for 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin'/'The Meeting of the Waters'. 

Once, there was an Emperor, who had already made half of the known world his own, yet grasped endlessly for the rest. At the zenith of his strength, when he was perhaps already sensing its impending failure, he reached out, straining in defiance of age and time, to clutch once more at conquests. The touch of his fingertips in one of those final desperate grabbings brushed against the shores of a distant, wild land of heather-moored hills and deep narrow valleys, wind-seared beaches and damp-cold forests, where magic was strong and there were powers that were old, and strange, and rooted in the ancient earth and rock on which they stood. The Emperor ruled parts of that land, here and there, but he could never fully tame it, and as he grew old and feeble and his Empire shrivelled back upon itself, it was the first of his provinces that he abandoned to its fate. 

The Great North has since lain free for long eons. None rule it. It was wild once, and so it remains. A frontier land where the tide of civilisation once washed before retreating, leaving fragments of flotsam behind it to lie where they may be found. A cold land. A fierce land. A debatable land. And a land of opportunity for those willing to grasp for it, much as the Emperor once tried in the faded past.

Monday 19 October 2020

I Want to Break Free

God knows I want to break free...from Drive Thru RPG.

Yes, I said it. I hate that site. I hate publishing through it: the eye-watering royalties (30% as opposed to the 3% you might get with a non-RPG-related competitor), the fact that it doesn't provide instant access to those royalties but forces you to wait, and - perhaps, irrationally, the thing I hate about it most - the fact that it seems to think I am a Spanish-speaker and doesn't apparently have a setting to switch my display language back to English.

It's not that I object to any of the political decisions or non-decisions that it has made. It's that it takes us for a ride in terms of pricing - for both consumers and publishers - because it is a quasi-monopoly. And the only reason that I can think of as to why this should be the case is that we have a misplaced loyalty to it: a species of geek social fallacy that says, "Because this website unashamedly and unabashedly makes clear that it relates to my weird hobby, there is a rebuttable presumption that I like and will use it."

Well, it's time to stop liking and using it. There are better options. I've always been satisfied with payhip; there are plenty of others. Use them instead.