Tuesday 31 March 2020

Random Redcap Lair Generator

A table I am working on for the Meeting of the Waters/"Northumberland Yoon-Suin" project. Also serves as Exhibit A for those who complain about the landscape format of the Yoon-Suin book. This is what all those tables looked like when printed in portrait.

Thursday 26 March 2020

The End of the World As We Know It

With the world in meltdown about a disease that may kill about 0.5-1% of the people who catch it, to use a commonly cited figure, it is worth reflecting that European diseases killed somewhere in the region of 60-90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be an Andean native during the smallpox epidemic that struck shortly before Pizarro's arrival? Think of the generalised anxiety among the population now about COVID-19, give it a liberal dose of ignorance about the very concept of infectious diseases that can spread through breath or touch, and then multiply it by 50 or so.

And they still managed to have the wherewithal to fight a civil war - what's your excuse for sitting around all day watching Netflix?

This is not the apocalypse, or anything like it, but it does at least put one in mind of the concept. We are familiar with games set in post-apocalyptic settings, and we are familar with both post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic fiction. But I'm not sure I know of many game settings or games proper that take place during the end of the world or an apocalypse event - All Flesh Must Be Eaten, I suppose, but zombies have never really interested me very much. I prefer my apocalypses to be Dionysian in tone. Although I am also intrigued by what you might call the Nyarlathotepian Apocalypse, in which a travelling scientist/philosopher drives everybody insane by inflicting them with nightmares which mean they can never sleep again, with this in turn meaning that society very quickly declines into fatal insomnia. And I also have a deep, abiding love for the Donald Sutherland Invasian of the Body Snatchers - which, by a form of free association between late 70s/early 80s SF/horror flicks, then gives me the idea for the "Apocalypse of The Thing", in which the eponymous Thing somehow gets off Antarctica and is suddenly all over humanity like a cheap suit.

What is your favourite flavour of the apocalypse?

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Hrotha's Town

Everyone knows that Hrotha’s Town exists. They see its people - the women bright-eyed, intelligent, gregarious, quick to laugh; the men laconic and somehow ponderous and bland - coming to their markets to trade, and they are real enough. And everyone knows that the Town lies somewhere to the north of Drummond’s Quarter, up the Sixthstreet. But few could take one to the spot, nor tell one how to get there, and its people will never say, no matter what the inducement.

To get into Hrotha’s Town, one must know that its entrance lies between two trees in a glade not far from the bridge over the Red River, and that, when drizzle falls on a bright day such that one could expect to see a rainbow, if one looks through the rain falling between those two trees where the sunlight strikes it, one will see the faintest outline of a wrought-iron gate. One must then step forward, making as though as to grasp the bars - convincing oneself that, despite the fact that they are as delicately translucent and as pale as gossamer, one can feel the hard cold metal as one presses one’s palms against them - and at that moment one will realise that it is in fact a real gate, and that it is as strong and heavy as iron can be, and that behind it is a track leading to what is clearly a large village with fields and orchards and people laughing in the distance.

Hrotha is a wizard with a thick black beard that bristles almost to his feet, and hair to match it. His violet eyes twinkle from a tanned face creased by laughter lines and his nose and cheeks are red with humour and the flush of wine. He is the image of avuncular affection. But he carries an iron rod, and rules with it both literally and figuratively. None of the populace dares to cross him, and his vengeance when he feels himself slighted is terrible.

It is their terror of his wrath that ensures the people of the Town continue to abide by Hrotha's rules for the most part even after his long and unexplained absence, which has now stretched to three years and thirty-three days with no sign of ending. One morning the people awoke to find he was gone, and his servants - the bands of unruly goat-men who serve as his eyes and ears - would not say where, nor even reveal if they knew that destination. Life has continued as before because the expectation is that one day he will come back, and none of the people of the Town wishes to be found in violation of his rules at that moment - the consequences of that far outweighing whatever benefit might have been gained from breaking them. For their part, the satyrs could not care less whether anybody abides by the rules, and in principle there is nothing stopping anybody flouting them at will if they were of a mind to do so.

The rules themselves are simple. First, it is forbidden to tell any outsider how to get into Hrotha’s Town, unless they are being brought there directly. Second, an outsider must not be brought to Hrotha’s Town without having agreed to Hrotha’s terms of residence. Third, once one has agreed to the terms of residence and come into the town, one may come and go as one chooses on the proviso that one never spends a night elsewhere again. And fourth, one must take part in the bacchanals, held each equinox and solstice. In return, one is guaranteed the safety and comforts which life in the Town provides.

Were a stranger to visit Hrotha’s Town one would be struck by the happiness and fulfilment of its women and the demoralised bitterness of the men. This is for the simple reason that, over time, being exposed to the vigour, virility and joyous abandon of the satyrs, the women of the town usually become dissatisfied with their menfolk, who come to strike them as unimpressive and weak-willed - not least because they have sacrificed all courage and zest for life by seeking craven comfort in this hidden place of safety. They readily take on lovers among the goat-men, and scorn their erstwhile human husbands. The men as a consequence grow almost visibly pale and wilted. The consequence is that Hrotha’s Town is largely barren of children, and the population only sustains itself by bringing in outsiders. A slow trickle of these flows in, perhaps in the order of a dozen people a year all told - a family with young children seeking protection; a runaway; an outlaw - brought by promises of safety and of plenty given in whispered conversation. The women of Hrotha’s Town’s desire to bring in others of their sex is evangelical in nature. For the men, it is more accurately described with the old saw that misery loves company.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

He Achieved Most of What He Wanted Through Charm - the Karajan Effect

From a comment on this post last week comes this interesting observation:

[T]he issue is that you have a lot of people who are very poor at basic speaking-to-audience skills who don't realize that the number one reason the DMs they see on youtube are effective is that they are comfortable speaking *as a general matter*. A good teacher or salesman or improv actor is going to need a completely different type and degree of instruction to become a good DM because they don't have to first figure out how to be engaging in front of a crowd. People who don't have that background have a real challenge ahead of them.

This is true of many, many activities that involve social interaction - teaching, sales, management and public speaking among them. Some people are either naturally good at it, or have become conditioned to be really good at it by circumstance, and this puts them at a huge advantage in comparison to others.

I would like to christen this the Karajan Effect, after the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was one of the greatest classical conductors of the recorded era. He is probably the only classical conductor apart from Leonard Bernstein who you have a fighting chance of having heard of if you're not into classical music, and was by many measures one of the highest-selling recording artists of the 20th century. If you want to hear him in action, listen to this performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and compare it with the one you may remember from the Fantasia of your childhood:

But by all accounts he did very little of what one is "supposed to do" as a conductor. He usually conducted with his eyes closed, which is considered to be precisely the opposite of what you would learn in conducting 101, because there is purportedly no way to properly communicate with the musicians if you don't do it, and he didn't particular care if his players played the wrong notes as long as they kept perfectly in time. One of his musicians said of him that "He achieved most of what he wanted through charm", rather than any sort of technique - he just made people want to play better.

You may see where I'm going with this, which is that when one thinks that somebody is a really good DM, it's often (not always!) simply the Karajan Effect in action - they're good at public speaking, performance, bluster, clarity of expression, and simply being fun to be around. This then rubs off on the players, who feel as though they are having a good time and get on board accordingly. It might superficially seem the right thing to do to copy a DM's technique if the players seem to be enjoying themselves, in other words, but you may not be able to replicate it if you don't have the requisite charm.

Another way of putting this is that figuring out what works well is not really something that you can learn from what a purportedly great DM writes about in his blog, talks about in his YouTube videos, or even demonstrates in actual play streams. Even if it is true that what he is telling you about or showing you apparently "works" for him (which I sometimes have my doubts about, especially with bloggers), that might just be because he happens to be charming - which is highly likely if, for instance, he has a very watchable and popular YouTube channel.

A simpler way of putting it even that this is: practice makes perfect, and not necessarily aping others or learning tricks and techniques.

Monday 23 March 2020

20 Rumours Overhead in Drummond's Quarter

1/In a glade called Scrabby Wood a parliament of rooks gathers each evening at twilight; if one goes there in the gloaming, one can hear in the rooks’ cries their gossip about what they have seen while going about their business in the course of the day

2/A tiny hamlet called Burradon Mains survives the predations of reivers by its population retreating into a network of tunnels underground, which they say goes all the way down to the centre of the earth

3/In a forested cleugh called Greenlish Wood there are the remains of a large village, now long overgrown, whose people were all eaten by ettins - except for a few children left in hiding who starved; their ghosts haunt the wood still and crave revenge on the giants' descendants

4/A band of robbers called Lanternside’s Boys used to operate from a cave at the top of Turnberry Cleugh; Laternside was always rumoured to have a hidden stash of treasure somewhere, and it has never been found

5/A big raid by the reivers from the hill known as the Swire recently returned from the settled coast, bringing with it several prominent captive ladies

6/A deep pool lies at the top of Dove Crag; in its waters their swims the Lady of Dove Crag, a great witch who was transformed by her sisters into a pike

7/A redcap who calls himself the Master of Fleehope Manor lives in a ramshackle half-ruined castle in a narrow cleft on the side of the hill known as the Curr; he keeps his captives alive and forces them to take part in frenzied bacchanals each full moon, and to practice their entertainments in between

8/An ancient road, called the Quickening Street, runs through the hills between High Bleakhope and the Nag’s Head; it was built in the days of the Emperor and people say that it leads to a great temple hidden beyond the fastness of the hills, where the descendants of an imperial cult still practice the old ways

9/Huge wild hogs roam the woods of Kidland Forest; they were bred by ettins long ago and let loose for hunting, and ever since it has been impossible for local people to access the woods for firewood, timber, mushrooms, and so on

10/Three waterfalls called the Rushy Linns follow in quick succession through Red Cleugh; diving into the pools of each in turn will cure any illness, but the water will turn one's skin red forever thereafter

11/A spring wells up in the woods by the hamlet of Nettlehope to form Drummer’s Pool; bathing in its waters is said to cure infertility, but the people of Nettlehope only allow their own to go near it

12/The reivers of Sneer Hill are said to have been tasked with guarding a place which the elves of the Hardwater hold secret and sacred

13/The ruin of a former imperial fort lies at Kinch Knowe, a remnant of an abandoned attempt to subdue the Hill of Wolves; its Prefect had a powerful magic sword that is hidden somewhere at the site

14/The redcap known as Father Moneylaws lives in a peel tower in the middle of Marl Bog; he is renowned for ‘adopting’ children, who are shortly after drowned in the bog when they inevitably disappoint him

15/The ettins of the Hethpool lair on an island in the middle of a dark, cold lake on Laddie’s Knowe, where they are said to have held captive an elf prince for a hundred years

16/A red dragon called Dreams-Coldly-Sleeping lies dormant under the Shank, a heather-covered hilltop; she is the daughter of Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight and inherited his wealth on his death

17/In the woods a waterfall, called Black Linn, plunges into a deep pool filled with dark green loaches; these are the spirits of 33 bastard children who were drowned as a sacrifice by an imperial cult long ago, and legend has it they will bestow great blessings on anybody able to release them

18/Down in the Hepplewoods there is an old gallows; a troll lives in a hut nearby and hangs anybody he finds out in the woods at night

19/A cave known as Darden Parlour lies hidden in the woods between Drummond’s Quarter and Hrotha’s Town - it goes deep under the earth

20/On the moor known as Ottercops Moss there is a large, single standing stone which is said to mark the burial site of a king of the people who lived in these lands before the days of the Emperor

Friday 20 March 2020

D&D and Mental Health

Let's try talk in a sensitive and entirely non-judgmental way about something which I feel like is a bit of an elephant in the room: a lot of people involved in OSR blogging and self-publishing have (self-declared) mental health problems - much more so, I would say, than in the general population. I used to notice this a lot even back in the early days, and with a high level of frequency in the G+ era. I see it all over Twitter, too, on the occasions when I look at RPG related tweets.

I have my worries, like anybody, but I thankfully (to my knowledge) don't have any mental health problems particularly. (Although severe psychotic disorders and rare degenerative brain conditions both appear to run in the family, so this may not last forever.) But I am interested in why this apparent correlation between an interest in RPGs and mental health arises, partly because I'm just curious, as a disinterested lay person, in the ways in which the conditions of modern life appear to be producing a crisis of spirituality of a kind, and partly because I like D&D nerds and I want to know what makes them tick.

Maybe you have noticed something similar to what I have described. If so, do you think it is:

-A function of the fact that 'extremely online' people who spend large portions of time each day on the internet discussing anything are more likely to have mental health problems than average, and I'm just noticing the ones who happen to be discussing old school D&D?

-A function of the fact that D&D players, particularly those who are really into it, and so immersed in it indeed that they would discover OSR games, tend to be quite creative people, and creative people have a tendency towards neurosis, anxiety and depression?

-A function of the fact that this is a relatively small corner of the internet that has the feel of a community and which therefore has a comfortable atmosphere that encourages openness about these things?

-A function of D&D having some kind of therapeutic benefit, whether intended or otherwise?

-Something else?

Or do you disagree with the initial premise?

Thursday 19 March 2020

Useful Advice about Narrating and Describing

The topic of how to narrate and describe things as a DM came up in the comments to a recent post. It put me in mind of a topic that I have written about before - namely, the difference between skills which are primarily learned through explanation (reading and writing, speaking a new language as an adult learner, driving, most sport) and those which are primarily learned through introduction (law, philosophy, teaching, acting, creative writing).

In a nutshell, learning how to drive is a skill which you can for the large part learn from being directly taught a series of techniques such as how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, how to parallel park, etc., combined with practice. This is what makes it mostly an explained skill.

Learning how to write fiction is a skill which you can only really learn by reading good fiction, combined with practice. You can't become a good writer by learning technical tricks. This is what makes it mostly an introduced skill.

For both types of skill you need a lot of practice to get good, and you need intuition and experience to do whatever it is well. But the former category is the type of thing that is amenable to being taught through a course and/or textbook, while the latter is the type of thing that can only really be taught by consistent informal exposure for a period of years. This is why there are useful textbooks on how to learn Romanian, but there are no useful textbooks on how to write fiction well. Romanian, like any other language, is mostly learned from putting into practice rules and techniques. Writing fiction well cannot be learned through a similar process (which is why 'how to write fiction that sells' type books are full of useless crap like, 'Write what you know' or 'Don't use adverbs', which no great novelist, or even bog-standard novelist, has ever actually followed).

Learning how to DM is in my view quite clearly much more like learning to write novels than it is like learning to drive. Yes, there are rules of thumb, and you will need to learn the rules of whatever game you're running, but what makes a good DM is mostly learned from watching others and from practice rather than from following technical guidelines or lists of 'best practices' or anything of that nature.

I am willing to be proved wrong, but I think in particular that the elements of DMing which concern describing and narrative events can't really be learned other than through watching good DMs and through practice. How to describe a fight scene in an exciting way? How to make wilderness travel interesting? How to make a scene, or a particular NPC, really 'come alive' in the players' minds? You have to do it a lot, reflect on what works and what doesn't, and watch other people who you think are good at DMing and reflect on that, too.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

"Because God Loves Wondrous Variety"

Spot the difference:

Foreign observers never failed to be impressed by the exotic regiments of the Tsar - Don, Turkistan and Ural Cossacks, the latter 'big, red-bearded, wild-looking men'. Officers carried their maps in their high hats; many enemies were killed with the lance...As for the men, correspondent Alexei Kayunin wrote: 'The yellow and purple robes of the Turkmens appeared blindingly brilliant against the background of village houses. They wore enormous sheepskin hats, above dark features and wild hair  which made them seem picturesque and majestic. Galloping on their horses they caused no less panic than armoured vehicles. I offered cigarettes and tried to talk to them. It was useless, for they didn't speak any Russian... 
An American correspondent described a squadron of Kubanski Cossacks: 'a hundred half-savage giants, dressed in the ancient panoply of that curious Slavic people whose main business is war, and who serve the Tsar in battle from their fifteenth to their sixtieth years; high fur hats, long caftans laced at the waist and coloured dull pink or blue or green with slanting cartridge pockets on each breast, curved yataghans inlaid with gold and silver, daggers hilted with uncut gems, and boots with sharp toes turned up...They were like overgrown children.' First Army's cavalry were commanded by the old Khan of Nakhichevan, who was found weeping in his tent one morning because he was too crippled by haemorrhoids to mount his horse. 
-From M. Hastings, Catastrophe, pp. 260-261

[W]e began to saunter along the embankment, while the Professor gossiped about the holiday-makers around us. He showed us some peasants from the villages down on the Greek border, who could neither read nor write, but got the silly fellows who had gone to the bother of learning such stuff to tell them the commodity prices on the foreign exchanges, and on that information they very cunningly calculated what crops to sow. He showed us also a superb being, like a Cossack in a Russian ballet, who went strutting by in a wide-skirted coat made from the wool of a brown sheep. This, he told us, was a wealth Tsintsar, a true nomad, who moved with his herds between summer and winter and hoarded all his wealth, according to the classic nomadic fashion, in the form of necklaces and bracelets worn by his womenfolk. And he hurried us across the road to see a family of gipsies who were clearly natives of fairyland. Only there could a father and mother still shapely as gazelles and bloomed with youth have eight children; only there could they have arrayed their coffee-brown beauty, which fastidious nostrils, secretive lips, and eyes like prune-whip made refined and romantic, in garments of chrome yellow, cinnabar, emerald, royal blue, and vermilion, which were so clean that they made the very sunlight seem a little tarnished. 'They are Gunpowder gipsies,' said the Professor; 'we call them that because they used to find saltpetre for the Turkish Army, and they are renowned for their cleanliness and their beauty.' 'But they are like Hindus!' I exclaimed. 'They might be from the Mogul court.' 'They are something of that sort,' said the Professor; 'when Gandhi's private secretary came here he could make himself understood to our gipsies in Tamil. We think that they are descendants of some conquered Indian people who fled out of Asia after some unrecorded catastrophe in the Middle Ages, and certainly these Gunpowder gipsies represent the ruling castes.' [...] 'All, all is in Yugoslavia,' said Constantine, glowing happily... 
-From R. West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 657

All sorts of people hung about the stations, men turbaned and fezzed and capped with conical hats of brown fur, men in Turkish trousers, or in long shirts and tights of creamy homespun linen, their leather vests richly worked in coloured wheels and flowers, or in suits of heavy brown wool ornamented with patterns of black braid, high red sashes wound round and round their waists, leather sandals sewed to a circular spout on the toe and bound to the calf with leather ribbons wound to the knees; women with the Turkish yashmak and bloomers, or in leather and woollen jackets embroidered in bright colours, waists of the rare silk they weave in the village, embroidered linen underskirts, black aprons worked in flowers, heavy overskirts woven in vivid bars of colour and caught up behind, and yellow or white silk kerchiefs on their heads. 
-From J. Reed, The War in Eastern Europe, p. 3

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

Fantasy and SF settings need more of a 'Mos Eisley Cantina' vibe than less, I think.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

PCs From the Deep

A long time ago, I speculated that Werewolf: the Apocalypse was secretly a game in which the PCs were terrorists.

Today during my lunch break I went down a weird rabbit hole of watching XCOM 2: Terror from the Deep play throughs on youtube. Perhaps it is just the use of the word 'terror' that forced a connection between these two things in my mind. But I got to thinking about the following high concept for a campaign:

Aliens have taken over the world, and the PCs are freedom fighters in underwater submarine bases engaged in a futile campaign of disruption and defiant violence against them.

The problem with turning a game like XCOM or Terror from the Deep into an RPG is that it falls prey to the old samurai sandbox problem. Having the players act like policemen or alien hunters forces them into a reactive mode which is repetitive and deprives them of agency. A campaign in which the PCs are elite soldiers or superheroes staving off alien attack is one in which they are basically at the beck and call of the DM, either directly because they are generally carrying out missions on behalf of some higher authority, or indirectly because their job is to wait for something bad to happen and then ride to the rescue like cavalry. You can possibly have a fun game that way, of course, but it won't be a sandbox and the players won't have much choice about what to do. It'll be more like a wargame with acting. It'll also be hard on the DM, who has to constantly come up with interesting scenarios rather than following the players' lead, which is one of the main virtues of a traditional sandbox campaign.

(This is the same problem in a nutshell as a "the PCs are cops" campaign: following orders and waiting for bad stuff to happen before acting is not as interesting as its opposite.)

But spin Terror from the Deep on its head and you have something very different. The basic idea behind TftD, for those who haven't played it, is that aliens who have been slumbering on the ocean floor for millennia have suddenly been awakened and are rising up from the oceans to attack human cities, spreading fear, panic, destruction, blah blah, and a special international agency has been set up to stop them. The parallel universe version is that the aliens have taken over the world, and the humans, rather than stopping alien terror, are engaged in a terrorist campaign against the alien overlords.

Rather than casting the PCs as guardians of humanity, in a reactive/defensive role, it makes them purposive actors - planning activities (bombs, raids, assassinations, whatever) - with the whole world as their oyster. Each session they're not looking to the DM to discover what their mission is; they're deciding for themselves how they are going to further their terrorist campaign.

A concluding observation is that players love this sort of thing. I find that the best moments in RPGs, the times when things really seem to sing the most, come when the PCs are coming up with some dastardly plot or scheme; that's when the players come to inhabit their PCs the most, and the point at which distinction between player and character begins to break down. When players are cooking up a plan, they start to truly think 'in character', and they do it collectively into the bargain. A terrorist campaign is one which maximises the opportunities for precisely that kind of mood to develop.

Saturday 14 March 2020

To Be Alone Amongst Friends

George Mallory, explaining the attraction of mountaineering, said: "Why do we travel to remote locations? To prove our adventurous spirit or to tell stories about incredible things? We do it to be alone amongst friends and to find ourselves in a land without man."

Most fantasy RPGs are about what Mallory puts under the umbrella of "proving [one's] adventurous spirit or telling stories about incredible things". That is what I think you would describe as the main motivation for D&D PCs (along with gaining wealth and power), for example, and the game models that well enough.

Fantasy RPGs model the pleasure of "being alone among friends in a land without man" much less successfully. The struggle of man in the wilderness and the pleasures and hardships of travel and exploration have largely escaped our focus.

This may replicate an imbalance at the heart of fantasy literature, which I think has tended to draw from the more bombastic, saving-the-world and derring-do elements of The Lord of the Rings while neglecting the (huge) parts of the story which concern travel and exploration as interesting activities in their own right. You don't get many fantasy epics which are mainly about the experience of a journey, although Vance's books can have this quality.

Eventually I will get around to buying Ryuutama, which promises to be able to produce that type of play experience. Some elements of the game (the "players and GM create the world together" and the idea of nudging PCs to help each other through the mechanics) are a turn off. But it seems worth putting up with that - by which I mean cutting out those bits - for "Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail". As long as I can transpose the contents into Lower Druk Yul or Lamarakh or whatever, we're golden.

Friday 13 March 2020

Drummond's Quarter

Shaped like the remains of a circle from which three quarters have been removed, Drummond’s Quarter sits on top of a triangular mound with steep slopes on all sides, at the top of which are high wooden stockades. Behind these bristle towers and watchposts - many spines which give the fourth-of-a-town the look of a hedgehog. And its people bristle too, with weapons and aggressive martial fervour, and with the unspoken anger of those who find themselves shackled by law, custom and circumstance.

According to legend Drummond’s Quarter was once part of a full town, roughly circular in shape, with each quarter owned by a brother. The brothers became proud and rode against an ancient and mighty golden wyrm, Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight, who once lived in the hills nearby. Their punishment was to have their town taken from them and cast into a netherworld of the dragon’s choosing, where it would remain for all time. At the last moment, however, the youngest of the brothers, Drummond, managed to declare an oath to the dragon which saved his own quarter of the town - though nobody knows what was the promise he gave.

This may or may not be true. But the main festival day in Drummond’s Quarter celebrates the return of the souls of those lost in the dragon’s punishment. And the people of the town insist that there are secret tunnels in Blackhaggs Rigg, the wooded hill which by legend is where Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight made his home, and that these tunnels lead down into a netherworld where - somewhere - the remaining quarters of the town and their inhabitants can be found. In some tales, those people wait for a saviour to come and rescue them, but in others they have created for themselves a paradise far below the surface of the earth, where they want for nothing and are safe from all dangers. 

Drummond’s Quarter is ruled by its martial orders, of which there are dozens, each with its own tower or keep, and each with its own peculiar focus, be it the capture of enemies without killing them; the use of the greatsword; the net-and-trident; or the skill of trench-digging. Each order is small, having usually less than fifty or so members (who are collectively referred to as ‘electors’), every one of whom spends all of his time in practising so as to be ready to defend the town when necessary. To be a member of such an order is prestigious: most have two or three wives, and a number of chattel slaves to perform the work of their household, and they are the only inhabitants of the town who may vote to elect the Leader. Their daughters they marry off; their sons they treat with brutal harshness so as to burn off all hint of weakness, like the fire sears the skin of a roasted hog and makes it into crackling. The rest of the population live in meek subservience, mostly bonded to measly plots of farming land outside of the town itself in serfdom, although there are a few merchants and other traders and artisans performing necessary tasks. The mood among the non-electors is that which would prevail among any population denied the capacity to develop wealth or status through their own merits - by turns despairing, stoical and violent.

Travellers come to Drummond’s Quarter rarely. The journey is too dangerous, and the town itself is full of unkindness and has little laughter in it. But by the same token, for those who seek adventure its position at the edge of the wilds is of unparalleled potential.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

On RPG Hobbyists and the Didactic Mode

The latest Bundle of Holding campaign is for Blue Rose. I am not one of those people who has anything against Blue Rose in particular. I am actually totally on board with the idea of a fantasy RPG which is about being the good guys - and I will quite happily admit that I have a real soft spot for romantic fantasy and for the artistic style of Blue Rose range:

I mean, I like sinister cats and weird uncanny-valley-inhabiting androgynous fae beings and creepy butterflies and flowers. I am all about those things.

I also completely understand the appeal of:

“[A] style and a point of view that’s generally positive, hopeful, and cooperative: good people can make a difference, true love can and does win in the end, we can make the world better, people of good conscience can work together (and even disagree) but still coexist peacefully, and, ultimately, there is good in the world and it’s something worth fighting for. That romance often includes interpersonal relationships, from boon comrades to passionate love, and such things are both the reasons why characters take action and the rewards they receive for their efforts." [from an interview with the Lead Designer, here.]

But where I part ways with projects like Blue Rose is the didacticism. It's the idea that it isn't sufficient to just create a product that takes inspiration from romantic fantasy literature or that is inclusive; one also has to teach people something:

"I think it’s remarkable that, in this day and age, even mature adult gamers won’t blink at games and stories that model the most terrible forms of violence, but become sheepish and embarrassed by stories modeling love and friendship and family, especially when tabletop roleplaying is such a social activity. While Blue Rose will most likely (we’re still in the design phase) have some game mechanics to support those relationships, my best advice to gamers is to balance a regard for everyone’s comfort level at the game table with a willingness to perhaps reach beyond that comfort zone for something that can be a powerful story element that has been missing from games aimed at telling legendary or mythological stories: the notion that love and connection are powers as great, if not greater, than any magic, any battle-prowess, or any cunning scheme." [from the same interview] 
In other words, it's not enough to just have fun playing a game - the players have to "reach beyond their comfort zone" and, the implication goes, learn something about the importance of love, connection, and so on and so forth through play.

Why is it that RPG designers feel that they have to do this - to prove that what they are doing is about more than just playing a game? That there has to be a didactic element to what they're creating? What is wrong with it just being for fun?

I wonder if it is the vestiges of that protestant work ethic, with its strong roots in the Puritanism that found its roots in the New World, which feels as though there is something base in enjoyment for its own sake, and insists that fun can only be fun if there is an element of work or self-betterment involved? Or is it just a manfestation of the insecurity of somebody of an artistic bent who frets that they are not doing something more important? Either way, it lends Blue Rose the unfortunate air of the closing sequence in a 1980s children's cartoon series, a Thundercats or a Dungeons and Dragons or a Defenders of the Earth - yes, didn't we all have fun fighting the baddies and setting off lots of explosions, but more importantly, didn't we also learn something about friendship? Cue millions of children throughout the land rolling their eyes and switching channel to ITV; the creators of Blue Rose might want to ask themselves if that is the mood they really want to capture with the product they've invested so much time and creative effort in.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

This Post Mentions Swanmays

Swanmays are one of that gang of monsters I tend to think of as symbolic of D&D during its Silver and, more prominently, Bronze ages, when the role of the DM was increasingly conceptualised as being to include the PCs in what was basically an interactive story of his or her own making. (This group of monsters also includes things like the lammasu, couatl, and sphinx.) That is, their presentation in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual results in an ever-present temptation to the DM to give them a prominent role in the story, to use them as a walking 'quest dispenser' for the PCs, or - worse - deploy them as a GMPC to wander around with the party and keep them on track so that they don't stray too far from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.

(The clear inspirations for this kind of character are Beorn and Aragorn - powerful helpers who step in to aid our heroes at crucial moments.)

But that's not to say they're irredeemable; rather, they are a concept crying out for reskinning, reformulating and rethinking. Perhaps the easiest and best way to do this is to give them prefixes.

War swanmay and Chaos swanmay have their appeal, but in the comments on my post about dungeon scavengers from the other day, somebody commented that you can turn anything into a dungeon scavenger by putting 'blind cave-' in front of its name. So I'm going to make the case for blind cave swanmay, because it so nicely illustrates the power that comes from randomly putting words together. What is a blind cave swanmay? First, you have to explain why there is a swanmay in a cave, and then you have a vision of blind, flightless (or flighted and echolocating?) swans eating fungus from the bottoms of vast but shallow underground lakes, cut off from the outside world by dark eons of isolation. You then have to imagine what a blind cave swanmay looks like, and then your imagination conjures up an albino woman with blank eyes (perhaps covered in skin), able to hear and smell her way through the blackness, and determined at all costs to preserve the peace and isolation of her flock. And then you have to think about what might threaten it, and then you have local noblemen on the surface who prize the feathers of a blind swan for their regalia, or orcs down below who present such feathers to their females as a prelude to mating. And all of a sudden you have the concept for an extended area of a dungeon map and its connections to the outside world and/or the rest of the dungeon which practically writes itself.

You can play the prefix game with more or less any prefix you like (as well as war-, chaos-, and blind cave-, there's also stuff like winter-, fire-, lightning-, magma-, etc.; magma zaratan, anyone? Lightning zombie? Fire yeti?). The thing to remember is that you're not coming up with the name of the monster necessarily, because the results in that respect are frequently very cheesy and 4e-ish indeed. The blind cave swanmay doesn't have to be what you call the thing for the players, in other words - it can have a more sensible in-setting name than that. It's the concept that matters. Try it and see.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Video Games - Role Playing versus Just Playing

I have never been a huge video gamer, and I gave up, semi-deliberately, about three years ago to avoid time wasting. But I have played a lot of strategy games over the years - mostly the Civilization, Total War and Paradox Interactive ones - as well as quite a lot of roguelikes. 

In my playing days, I used to watch the occasional YouTube video longplay or keep abreast of 'After Action Reports' at places like the Paradox Interactive forums. What I noticed after a time was:
  • Some people get insanely good at strategy games, mostly by identifying certain loopholes and exploiting them mercilessly;
  • Other people like to play the game in a more immersive way by imagining game play as being something like an unfolding, un-planned story
  • There is nothing wrong with either, because it is entirely a matter of taste, but...
  • I was in the latter of these camps
For example, I am not a great master at any of the Civilization games. I can conquer the world on the lower difficulty settings, but usually get squashed at higher difficulty settings. This I attribute to being more interested in imagining that I am the demigod ruler of a race of minions than I am in getting 'good' at the game. It's more important to me to imagine that I am creating a pleasant city for people to live in than I am in figuring out the precise combination of buildings and resources I need to generate the optimal amount of research or military units (or whatever). I'm more interested in emotional connections to AI civilizations (loyalty, revenge, etc.) than I am in getting what I need from them. I value the experience of narrative more than winning, in other words. 

Put another way, I am probably a romanticist rather than a classicist. I prefer Role Playing to Just Playing. 

(And this extends to other types of game too. In a roguelike, for instance, I'm more interested in playing a halfling demonologist or whatever because it sounds weird and I like to imagine what the character is like, than I am in picking something optimal or working out how to make a certain configuration of race/class work.)

Is this due to me playing RPGs during my formative years and hence valuing that kind of play experience more than the one of getting good at the game? Or am I naturally attracted to RPGs because I am of a romantic sort of disposition? I'll leave that question to the philosophers.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

What Happened to the Bodies?

PCs often end up killing big monsters, or large numbers of humanoid ones. (For example, it wouldn't be unusual to have the PCs kill a dozen orcs in a confrontation.)

This would leave a big mess. As a DM I have tended to deal with this on an ad hoc basis but I wonder if there is a more systematic way of doing so. For example, here is a table to determine what happens to the bodies (or body) after a battle with humanoids or a big monster such as a giant, dragon, manticore, etc. You would roll on this table whenever the PCs return to the scene of a battle in a dungeon.


1-4 - The bodies remain as they lay, but have attracted small scavengers who are now feeding on them* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects)
5-8 - The bodies remain as they lay, but have attracted large scavengers who are now feeding on them* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects, 4 - Monstrous**)
9-12 - The bodies have been disturbed and looted (the looters are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6)
13-16 - The bodies have been removed by allies (the allies are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6; they are of the same type (1-4) or a different species (5-6))
17-19 - The bodies have been mutilated and defaced by rivals (the rivals are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6; they are of the same type (1-2) or a different species (3-6))
20 - The bodies have mysteriously disappeared (they have been e.g. taken away by a necromancer to turn into undead, taken away by body snatchers for parts, taken away for food by intelligent cannibals, and so on)

Large monster

1-6 - The body remains as it lay, but has attracted small scavengers who are now feeding on it* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects)
7-12 - The body remains as it lay, but has attracted large scavengers who are now feeding on it* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects, 4-6 - Monstrous*)
13-16 - The body has attracted humanoids who are cutting it apart to obtain the skin, organs and so on for magical or religious purposes*
17-19 - The body lies pristine and untouched (because dungeon denizens are afraid of it; because it is haunted by the spirit of the original owner, etc.)
20 - The body has mysteriously disappeared (they have been e.g. taken away by a necromancer to turn into undead, taken away by a magic-user for ingredients, taken away for food by intelligent dungeon dwellers, and so on)

*If a period of time longer than 3 days has passed, the bodies/body have been eaten or picked clean and now lay as carcasses
**'Monstrous' indicates a carrion crawler, otyugh, pudding, ooze, etc.

Monday 2 March 2020

Refractions of Hobbiton, Categorised

It occurred to me yesterday while watching an 11-hour long play-through of Secret of Mana (don't judge me) that Tolkien's greatest influence on the fantasy genre may be the basic structure of his plot. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be roughly summarised as: naive young hobbit leaves Hobbiton, has adventures and comes back changed by the big bad world beyond it. The evidence of this plot is all around us within the genre (it is even, I would argue, present in the version of A Song of Ice and Fire which GRRM was writing before he let himself get carried away), but it reaches an apogee of cliche in the Squaresoft games. Just watch the following 5 minutes of this video:

There is a lot to this basic plot structure, of course, because it raises all sort of interesting questions (in The Lord of the Rings, is it perhaps more the case that the naive young hobbit leaves Hobbiton and changes the big bad world, rather than the other way round, while the big bad world comes and changes Hobbiton?) but not many of Tolkien's imitators were anything like as subtle. They have, however, shown a certain capacity to innovate in the type of Hobbiton which they have created. Here is a non-exhaustive list of Hobbiton variants, with Hobbiton here defined as "a nice, innocent homely place which the main character lives in before going off on his or her adventures":

1. The Unfinished Hobbiton - a Hobbiton to which the hobbit never actually returns; see e.g. Emond's Field in The Wheel of Time (I never got very far in the series, but I think I'm right anyway)

2. The Reverse Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is the locus of the hobbit's adventures, rather than his original home; see e.g. Hogwarts, the USS Enterprise, and possibly Armada in The Scar

3. The Cold-Hearted Hobbiton - a Hobbiton from which the hero is, fairly or unfairly, exiled; see e.g. Potos in Secret of Mana

4. The Violated Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is destroyed, generally early on in the plot; see e.g. Uncle Owen's farm in A New Hope, or that place with the treehouses in Dragons of Autumn Twilight

5. The Hobbiton by Numbers - a Hobbiton which effectively fulfils the role of the Hobbiton in The Hobbit, often complete with a bucolic quasi-English rural setting; see e.g. Aunt Pol's farm in The Belgariad 

6. The Internal Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which the main character never leaves, because adventure comes there instead; see e.g. Redwall Abbey from Redwall

7. The False Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is actually evil and from which the main character is happy to flee; see e.g. the Citadel in The Shadow of the Torturer, or the Dursleys' house in the Potter books

8. The Refused Hobbiton - a home that also generates its own adventures; see e.g. Gormenghast

9. The Mos Eisley Cantina Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is a hub serving as a base for adventure; see e.g. Sigil, the Magic Faraway Tree