Thursday 27 February 2020

On Frozen and Fantasy for People Who Aren't Into Fantasy

The fantasy genre is split into many sub-genres. You can imagine it as a sprawling country manor house with many stories and annexes. There's the high fantasy wing; the sword-and-sorcery suite; the sword-and-planet attic; and so on.

Over the other side of a 6-lane motorway traversable only by a narrow footbridge is another genre altogether: Fantasy for People Who Aren't Into Fantasy (FPWAIF), which is a mansion all of its own. There is a small amount of foot traffic between it and fantasy proper. But not much.

Because I have a young daughter Frozen and Frozen II have invaded my life. She hasn't seen Frozen II and only brief glimpses of Frozen, but Disney permeates the world of little girls like water to fishes, and so anything and everything are now to do with Elsa and Anna (when they're not to do with Belle, or Rapunzel, or Cinderella, all of which are also from films she hasn't seen but is nonetheless obsessed with). So, whether I like it or not - no guessing as to which - I have to know about earth giants and trolls and elemental spirits in enchanted forests. This is FPWAIF at its zenith: stuff that sounds like it would embarrass even the author of one of those awful Tolkien rip-offs from the 60s or 70s, Terry Brooks or David Eddings.

Confronted with FPWAIF, it is difficult for the bona fide inhabitant of the fantasy genre manor to resist turning into the comic store guy from The Simpsons. When the Harry Potter films were at the height of their popularity, I remember hearing Mark Kermode reviewing one of them (it must have been the sixth or seventh in the series) and lavishing praise on JK Rowling for coming up with the idea of a horcrux, which was a "completely original idea" in his view. I almost had an aneurysm: what is a "completely original idea" in the FPWAIF mansion is the oldest of ancient hats in fantasy manor; but, of course, for the Person Who Isn't Into Fantasy even the most hackneyed ideas are novel, and even JK Rowling's grab-bag of cobbled-together Fighting Fantasy cast-offs are a breath of fresh air.

(Not that this makes Harry Potter books bad, I hasten to add. I haven't read them, but I have watched and enjoyed the films, even though I will maintain to my dying day that the plots of the last handful make absolutely no sense and presumably rely on prior knowledge on the part of people who've read the stories.)

JK Rowling is FPWAIF mansion's most famous inhabitant, but joining her for dinner are a large number of more celebrated authors - people like Margaret Attwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - who have dabbled in attempting to write SF or fantasy without any of real understanding or appreciation for the genres and their history, and who have ended up producing bland and old-fashioned claptrap as a result. For these people, it's enough to take a Sunday afternoon stroll over the motorway bridge and peer in a few of the windows at old fantasy manor, and be back home in time for tea.

It is interesting to speculate what will become of FPWAIF in the post-Game of Thrones age. Is the number of People Who Aren't Into Fantasy going to dwindle? Or was all that Westeros stuff just a flash in the pan? My money is on the latter, all things considered, but you never know.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Cultural Differences

I've talked before, a little bit, about British and American approaches to fantasy.

What I've never written, much less read, about is the difference between British and American gaming groups. All regular groups are unique, of course, and every session is different. But is it possible to make any general statements about how cultural differences play out in play (no pun intended)? 

We need hardly limit ourselves to just cultural differences between Americans and Brits, of course, but they would make an interesting comparator because they share a language while being, in my experience anyway, culturally very different. Americans are much less like British people than are Germans, Danes, or the Dutch, for example. Given that language is basically the same, how might cultural separation reveal itself in what happens at the table?

Stereotypically, I would imagine Americans to be more at ease acting and doing voices (less reserved), more at ease getting in touch with PCs' feelings (more touchy-feely), and more involved and engaged (less likely to filter everything through arch humour).

I have no real idea whether this is true, but it would be an interesting thing to study if one could come up with a method for doing so.

The mystery to me is how Japanese gamers are at the table. I lived in Japan for a long time but never got involved in the Japanese TRPG scene. On the one hand, Japanese people are famously reserved. But on the other, as anyone who has spent time among the Japanese will tell you, when being unreserved is socially sanctioned and the shackles are off, you discover they're not very shy at all. Indeed, where being outgoing is expected, Japanese people will as in all things rise to the occasion. 

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Rumours Overheard in the Place of the Keepers

1/There is a circle of five standing stones on a windswept hilltop a few miles west of the Place of the Keepers, with gaps where there were once two more; it is called the Once-Were-Seven Stones, and is said to be an ancient gateway to the Hardwater - which might be usable again if the missing stones are found

2/A redcap, Certain Jacob, lives in an abandoned holdfast in the forest with a pack of wolf servants who bring him human prey to enjoy; he is said to have a treasure trove as big as a beer barrel

3/There is a cave in a sea cliff just a short distance north of the burgh from which the locals say they can sometimes hear noises, like distant shouting, or music

4/A heugh called Shepherdskirk Hill is home to a clan of bogles who hide among the gorse on its ridge top and light fires at night which appear to be signals - though nobody knows for what

5/Somewhere in the Hill of Wolves there is a monstrous beast trapped in a stone prison, put there by dwarves long ago; when it knows people are close, it promises them rewards if they are able to release it

6/A cursed knight lives in a bastle house on the Hill of Wolves, haunted by the ghosts of his murdered wife and daughters - he craves release

7/A series of sinkholes in the forest, called the Hazelrigg Doors, go deep underground to where there is an underground city

8/A mad old woman roams hither and thither up and down this section of the Great North Road, claiming she was once an elf

9/A flock of red sea birds roams the sandy beaches to the south, and these were formed from the body of a red-haired daughter of the Nineyear family who drowned herself in the sea here long ago; they know all the secrets of the estate at Stuck Gates

10/A black dragon who the locals call Quick-of-the-quiet sleeps with his treasure horde under a hill named Rackside, but nobody has seen him in many years

11/A tower known locally as Mary’s Lantern stands on a hilltop in the wilderness between the Place of the Keepers and Hrotha’s Town; its owner is a witch who studies the stars and collects starlight

12/A nature spirit made from fallen leaves lurks in the woods off the Great North Road, whispering secrets about travellers who have recently passed by; it is only present when nobody is looking at it

13/A brackish pool sits a short distance from shore, inhabited by water birds, including a swan who can transform herself into a woman - she kills poachers and anything which would harm local animal life, and knows more about the wilderness in this area than anybody

14/Under the dunes somewhere south of the Place of the Keepers is a hidden fortress buried under the sand, built by the Emperor to guard against invasion

15/A cluster of boulders called the Shivering Stones stands on the hillside of Lamb Crags; they are said to hum and tremble from time to time, almost as if singing

16/Somewhere in the barren coast between the Place of the Keepers and Dolorous Garde there has recently arrived a group of whalers and seal-hunters from a distant place, and they are harassing fishermen from the Place of the Keepers

17/A mad knight-errant has recently been in the Place of the Keepers before setting off into the forests on some crazed quest; his brothers have arrived and are asking questions about his whereabouts

18/On top of a hill known as Gallowlaw there is an ancient fort of the people who lived in these lands before imperial rule; all that remains is a series of large circular foundations, and various tunnel entrances closed off by large stone slabs

19/A giant with a deer’s head roams the forests between the Place of the Keepers and Hrotha’s Town

20/It is said that the Guild Hall of one of the prominent guilds in the burgh contains extensive cellars that have fallen into disuse and have never been fully mapped

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Shades of Evil

So what are Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil, exactly?

The best way to conceptualise these alignments is, I think, to describe them as being circumstances in which the excess of law, neutrality or chaos becomes indeed so excessive that it turns to evil.

Neutral Evil is the easiest to explain in this way. Here is a character who has no interest in the furtherance of anything beyond himself, and especially not in the grand conflict between Law and Chaos which permeates the multiverse. He is completely self-centred and devoted to his own pleasure and success. That this can turn to evil is obvious.

The more difficult questions are where Lawful Neutrality and Chaotic Neutrality turn to evil. Lawful Neutrality - the absolute insistence on the letter of the law and the preservation of order - can clearly have negative consequences where it results in harsh or unmerciful application. This is Javert from Les Miserables in a nutshell; a man for whom the enforcement of the law is everything and who therefore becomes blinded to unfairness or injustice as a result. That falls short of evil, because it lacks the necessary intentionality - it's not that Javert is a bad man; he's just misguided. Where the excess of law becomes evil is I think where anything which is outside of or orthogonal to established norms becomes seen as inhuman, worthy of extermination, and open to whatever forms of abuse one wishes to subject it to - it is Nazis casting aside human "impurities"; it is the Khmer Rouge expunging all bourgeous elements. The insistence on a hypertrophied sense of purity or orderliness taken to the point at which it justifies any form of brutality or depravity. It doesn't have to be racial or political purity as these examples are, of course - it could be, for instance, a religious person who insists on absolute orderliness and inflicts horrible torture on anybody who strays outside of accepted boundaries, or a village elder who enforces cultural norms with sadistic glee. (Is a girl being burned alive or stoned to death for daring to report a sexual assault committed against her by a teacher in Bangladesh an example of Lawful Evil in action?)

Chaotic Neutrality, similarly, can have very bad consequences. Think of Drop Dead Fred (I generally try not to think about that film, but this is one occasion where a character is a great example of an alignment). If that character were a real person, he would be the prime example of Chaotic Neutrality - he lacks any malice, but obeys no norms whatsoever. He is capable of causing physical devastation, pain and suffering as a result, but these are byproducts of his chaotic nature, not the result of intent. The Joker from The Dark Knight, on the other hand, is Chaotic Evil, because although he too emphasises disobedience of norms, the point of him doing so is to destroy those norms entirely such that he can give free reign to criminality and vice and "watch the world burn" or whatever the line is. Drop Dead Fred is merely capricious. The Joker is purposively so.

The Place of the Keepers

There will be more to come on alignment, but I was chided, or chastised (is there a difference?) for not putting up more Northumberland Yoon-Suin stuff, so here is something for the peanut gallery:

The Place of the Keepers

Where the mouth of the Border Water spills out into the sea stands an ancient burgh with mighty walls made of pinkish-gold granite. It has stood at least since the Emperor made it, as a place to station His fleet. Since he disappeared a long line of men have “kept” it, and his ships - under what they claim was His final command and deriving the status from His ultimate authority.

Whether there was originally intended to be just one Keeper or many is a point of historical and legal debate. Whatever the truth of the matter, the number of Keepers has grown inexorably over time due to a custom instituted long ago. When a Keeper dies, a new one is elected by the burghers from among their number to replace him. The previous Keeper is then interred in a barrow to the south of the burgh, whereupon spells are cast by the Vestals, a caste of priestly witches, in order to retain his wisdom and vitality for the furtherance of the task the Emperor gave him. He thus remains in his dark barrow as a wight, and is periodically exhumed and brought back to the burgh to give advice when required.

As a result of this practice, there are now many dozens of Keepers, one of whom is alive - for the time being - but the rest of whom are dead. Whenever the living Keeper is called upon to do or decide anything, he is required to consult all of the others, who are accordingly exhumed with great ceremony and brought into the burgh to speak and cast a vote. This is partly as a result of custom, but mostly as a result of political prudence. Each dead Keeper generally retains the loyalty of his household, followers and descendants after death; these people cling on to the status and privileges which accrued to them when “their” Keeper was alive, and form an ongoing power bloc within the burgh ever after. The result of this is that the current living Keeper is faced with great pressure to accommodate the views of the dead ones in order to placate potential sources of civil strife.

Another result of this is that governance of the burgh grows ever more fractious over time, because with each dead Keeper there are new vested interests jostling for influence. Some powerful families have three, four or even five dead Keepers in their ancestry. The exert great pressure on the living Keeper as a result. Their rivals compete vigorously to have their sons elected Keeper so that they can expand their voice and maintain it through the generations. The burgh is riven with plots, counter-plots, assassinations and fluctuating alliances - and the streets and alleyways and taverns are forever filled with whispered rumours about goings-on among the burghers; for the common people, the shenanigans of the great and good are more interesting than any sport.

The burgh still harbours a war fleet, nominally owned by the Emperor and awaiting the return of imperial rule. These old ships - sleek, oared things built for ramming - are meticulously repaired and maintained, though of course over time they have grown fewer, and the ones that remain inevitably show their great age in the vast encrustations of barnacles on their hulls and in their constantly expanding patchworks of repairs. Each ship by convention is given only a number and not a name, but they are treated as demigods or saints by the inhabitants of the burgh, who recite tales and legends (whether fanciful or true, none can say) about them from their many centuries of service, and insist that their captains and crews know them to be sentient - capable of communicating strange needs and desires through the dreams of those on board, and able at times to control the winds so as to avoid danger or change course to some unknown place. Each ship has its cult, whose members offer it prayer and sacrifice, and ask it to intercede on their behalf with the forgotten imperial gods - or even the soul of the Emperor Himself - whenever they are anxious, joyous, or otherwise in need of blessings. Whenever a ship of the fleet leaves the harbour, the words goes out ("The IVth is on its way"; "Is that the XIXth? The repairs must have been finished") and the members of that particular cult flock to the quayside to throw flowers, shower it with ale, or dive into the water to swim alongside it. In those moments of passion and excitement in the morning sun, it is easy for the participants to forget that the fleet has had no apparent purpose for many generations, and the voyages of its ships are as lacking in wider meaning as the blowing of the wind or the falling of the rain.

Friday 14 February 2020

Alignment Embodiments

Here's a game you can play along to on your own blog or social media platform of choice. Which fictional character (or group of characters) from book or film epitomises you understanding of each alignment? Go.

Lawful Good - Jean-Luc Picard

Lawful Neutral - Javert from Les Miserables

Lawful Evil - The Dark Judges from Judge Dredd

Neutral Good - Gandalf

True Neutral - the Laputans from Gulliver's Travels

Neutral Evil - Aila Woudiver

Chaotic Good - Tom Bombadil

Chaotic Neutral - Raoul Duke

Chaotic Evil - Judge Holden from Blood Meridian

Wednesday 12 February 2020

RPGs, Intimacy and Stand-Up

RPGs are most often compared to video games or board games, or perhaps to novels. In many ways, they are much more similar to stand-up comedy, traditional communal story-telling, or preaching. This is because at its core playing an RPG is a communal exercise in shared visualisation. 

You can play video games communally, but all of the players are seeing the same things (literally, in the case of the old fashioned shared-screen/split-screen games I used to play; almost literally when it comes to online gaming). When you read a novel, you are trying to visualise something which another person is describing, but it's just you and the writer.

During an RPG session, on the other hand, the DM or a player is imagining something and describing them to the other participants, and they are trying to 'see' what it is in their own heads, all at once. 

The phenomenology of this is fascinating. If it were somehow possible to do so, one would be able to look into the minds' eyes of all of the participants and see a different version of the events being described in each of them, all playing out simultaneously. It would be like a case study in human perception, consciousness and communication, all at once. 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that there is an intimacy in this, but there is, isn't there? Somebody is imagining something, and describing it, and you and several other people are sitting listening to this and trying to imagine the same thing. This can't help but be a bonding experience, I think, even if of a very trivial kind and mediated through humour and distractions and snacks and beer. No big deal - there are plenty of bonding experiences in life. But there aren't many that I can think of that are based around shared visualisation of something, particular amongst a group of people. 

One that stands out is storytelling, of the old-fashioned variety - a person standing up in front of an audience to tell them a tale. This is also true of stand-up, which is a kind of bastard progeny of that tradition, and preaching, which has a strong story-telling component at times. One person is imagining something and describing it to others, and those others do their damnedest to try to imagine it too. It is no accident that these activities are also strong sources of human bonding - whether it's a tribe, a religious community, or an audience watching Dave Chapelle. 

Another way of putting this is: playing RPGs helps you form lasting friendships. You knew that already. But it's worth emphasising. 

Tuesday 11 February 2020

Unholy Island

A few miles north of Dolorous Garde and perfectly visible from its walls lies Unholy Island - a flat and mostly featureless expanse of dunes, tough grasses and marsh, with, at its very eastern tip, a hill which thrusts itself up like a dorsal fin. Beneath the hill is a natural harbour and standing on its summit is a fort of red stone: The Nunnery.

The nuns of Unholy Island have given themselves in marriage to Old Mister Sharpness, a God of Theft. Their worship of him consists in devoting themselves to stealing - of material possessions, naturally, but also of skins, which they flay from their captives alive. This is a function of their doctrine, which stipulates that theft can only be theft if the item is taken from somebody living (because the dead have no possessions); if its taking deprives the owner of its use; and if the taker gains a benefit from the taking. A flayed skin meets these requirements - provided of course that the victim can be kept alive to the end of the process, which is by no means straightforward. This is because the skin is taken from the living; because its taking deprives the victim of its use; and because it benefits the taker, who can put the skin to various practical effects. It is a point of dispute among the nuns as to whether it is necessary to actually use the skin, or whether it suffices that it could in theory be put to use, in order for its taking to count as theft. Those who hold with the former interpretation use skins to make velum books and scrolls, to make leather items, to repair their coracles, or even for ships’ sails. Those who hold with the latter hoist them like flags in praise of their husband and master at various places around the island.

The piracy of these women extends up and down the entire coast. By longstanding custom they do not molest the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, and they do not stray too close to the Place of the Keepers. But any fisherman, merchant or coast dweller must be constantly vigilant for their presence. Fortunately, for the locals, their numbers are relatively few.

Unholy Island is a tidal island and is accessible by a south-easterly approach across mud flats for d3+3 hours twice over the course of any 24 hour period. Whenever the PCs visit, or if it is necessary in advance to work out tide times, simply roll 1d12 to determine the hour between 1am and noon at which the first accessible period begins. Then roll another 1d12 to determine the hour between 1pm and midnight at which the second accessible period begins. At all other times the island is a genuine island which can only be accessed by boat.

A tiny islet sits just off the southernmost tip of Unholy Island, like a small boat moored to the sea’s bottom. On it there stands a low circle of six thin white columns. Each day, a group of nine Type IV automata walk across the mud flats as soon as the tide is out, whether it is night or morning. They remain there from that point for the rest of the day until the last possible moment before the second accessible period ends, at which point they return to the shore and wait for the next accessible period to begin. According to the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, they have done this since the time of the Emperor. To what end, they cannot tell.

Friday 7 February 2020

Transparent DMing

My DMing style is highly transparent.

I roll all dice in the open. I almost always tell the players what I am rolling for and what number will indicate 'success' (with e.g. monster 'to hit' rolls). I even do this for surprises and traps as a general rule - so when the players are going round the dungeon I will, for example, tell them when I am rolling for a random encounter, then the surprise roll if there is an encounter, then the reaction roll, etc.

I never use a DM screen.

I am happy to give the players some narrative control by asking them things like, "Where do you think the orcs you just captured were going?"

I am also happy to ask their advice when making rulings. "What do you guys think would be a fair way of judging if this PC can jump over the chasm?"

I generally let them know I am just a guy behind a curtain pulling rods and levers rather than a wizard. I am willing to be persuaded out of things and retcon when I have clearly made an error of judgment.

I am fine with saying, on occasion, things like, "Sorry that I have to do this to you, but the random wilderness encounter I just rolled up is a real bastard." But I never change the result of a roll or fudge.

I think all of this makes the players more involved and invested in the success of the session and takes a lot of the pressure off DMing. I also think it creates useful narrative distance between events in the game and the players. By making things partially non-immersive through putting the mechanics in the open, the 'feel' is more arch - one is tempted to say Vancian - and there is much less temptation to get carried away with trying to make up a story and start fudging. In this sense it is a bit like postmodern architecture - rather than hide the plumbing, wiring and so on, it's made into a centrepiece.

I have found that the more I do these things, the better and more fun my sessions are.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Everything is Unique

The most popular children's character in Japan by a country mile is Anpanman. Forget Pokemon and Hello Kitty. Those are for foreigners. If you want to know what actual Japanese children are into, it's Anpanman all the way.

The interesting thing about Anpanman is that almost every character who ever appears is a unique, named individual. According to wikipedia, in the first 980 episodes and 20 films there are 1,768 distinct named characters - and most of them recur from time to time in the vast range of merchandised products available to waste your money on, ranging from snacks to bikes to nappies to stationary. For a sample of this, here are some random pictures from an Anpanman iteration of the Where's Wally? idea.

As you can perhaps see from these photos, this lends the Anpanman universe an unusual atmosphere: half-Star Wars cantina, half-small town in which everybody knows each other. The characters are in one sense a throng, but in another are portrayed as distinct persons each with their own goals, desires, hopes and fears. What they are definitely not is just "orcs" or "storm troopers" or "klingons" or whatever. They are people. Most children's TV series and books are a little like this, but Anpanman is unique in the scope and range of characters appearing in it.

I very much like the idea of a D&D campaign in which not just every NPC is a distinct, named individual (this may be one of the best bits of advice in Apocalypse World, actually), but in which every single monster is also a type all of its own. I don't just mean that every orc in the group of 6 you've just encountered has a name; I mean that you didn't just encounter a group of 6 orcs - you encountered a group of 6 individual beings, allied together but all of their own individual kind. This requires time and effort (or a really big and detailed random table) but would I think be worth it - because it would make every single encounter, every single lair, an event and a surprise.

Tuesday 4 February 2020

On a Northumberland Yoon-Suin

I am "doing a thing", tentatively referred to as 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin'. I mentioned it briefly here, but the basic idea is to do Yoon-Suin in reverse. If Yoon-Suin allows you to create a version of Southern Asia which a medieval European might have imagined from stitched-together myths, rumours and fragments of knowledge about the real thing, then this will allow you to create a version of Northumberland which a person from Late Classical India might have imagined from stitched-together myths, rumours and fragments of knowledge about the real thing.

It has the ruins and detritus of a long-lost Empire, storm giant aristocrats, elves which steal people, dwarves who always lie to non-dwarves and always tell the truth to other dwarves, bogles and redcaps and grindylows and shellycoats, and a dungeon made from a gargantuan gorse bush. It is on a much smaller scale than Yoon-Suin and is supposed to be 'droppable' into an existing D&D campaign map. I am reasonably confident it will be completed at some point rather than end up as vapourware.

Here is a preliminary map.