Thursday 30 April 2020

On Carrie Bradshaw and Frodo Baggins: The "She's the Protagonist So We Like Her" Phenomenon

I have watched a lot of Sex and the City over the years - probably every episode of the TV series and the two films - after having been forced to by various girlfriends and wife. I actually really enjoyed the series (although the films are atrocious, especially the second one, which is truly execrable - one of the worst, laziest, stupidest films ever made). It is for the most part smartly written, if highly formulaic, and I find the depiction of men in it genuinely fascinating; if you think female characters who appear in fiction and films designed to appeal to men are awful, unrealistic, two-dimensional stereotypes, then Sex and the City will quickly disabuse you of the notion that it's any different the other way round.

But the most intriguing element of Sex and the City to the neutral observer is the character of Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw is a horrendous person. She is materialistic, self-absorbed to the point of being almost monstrous, amoral and nihilistic - like the personification of everything wrong with 21st century consumer culture. It is completely absurd to imagine that men would be queueing up to date her - especially not supposedly nice guys like her erstwhile fiance (whose name I forget - I think it might be "ThatguywhowasinMyBigFatGreekWeddingandlooksabitlikeWaingrofromHeat"). The whole premise of Sex and the City, in other words - that Carrie Bradshaw is an attractive woman with a great personality who men would think of as being a catch - is completely and utterly false. And yet the series and films rely almost exclusively on that premise. Carrie Bradshaw is the protagonist, so we are supposed to accept that everybody within the fictional Sex and the City universe loves her  despite all the evidence before our eyes, which tells us in no uncertain terms that she is dreadful.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon in film and literature - protagonists who are in fact intensely dislikable but who all the other characters mystifyingly seem to love. The main character in the Twilight films (I haven't read the books) is another great example: a moody, grumpy, sulking pain in the arse whose protagonist status means that, unaccountably, vampires and werewolves just fling themselves at her feet. There are plenty of others. Harry Potter is certainly on the border of this territory - what an annoying twerp that kid is; why do Hermione and Ron like him, exactly? (I may just be channelling my hatred of Daniel Radcliffe's petrified forest of wooden performances in the films, though, here.) Orloondo Bland's character in the Pirates films is slap bang in the middle of it. Although so, for that matter, is Kiera Knightley's. The Pirates films are an interesting example, in fact, in that it's not only mystifying why anybody else in the films' fictional universe likes the two main protagonists, but also baffling that they even like each other.

But this isn't just a problem for trashy YA novels and Hollywood flicks. Even the Great can fall prey to it. I am speaking, of course, about Tolkien and Frodo Baggins.

Why does anybody like Frodo? Well, we know the reason - it's because he's the protagonist. But he's fundamentally a pretty dislikable figure. In his defence, he has a lot to deal with. But he doesn't deal with it with particularly good grace. In Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith astutely observes that our natural sympathies are aroused when we know somebody is suffering, but that it is quite easy for the sufferer to extinguish that flow of goodwill by being excessively morose. There is something odd about somebody who takes suffering with too much sanguinity, but we do admire a certain amount of fortitude and forbearance. If a sufferer too readily complains, we quickly start to find them irritating - even if we know that their suffering is real. What we like, in short, is an attitude that is appropriately serious but phlegmatic.

Frodo tips over into the territory of exhausting goodwill. He is excessively morose. He is an ingrate. He mopes. He shows no initiative. He is continually at pains to let everybody know that he is finding everything jolly hard work. He is a bit like a toddler who has been running around all day and now that it's time to go home suddenly realises he's tired and spends the entire journey grousing and complaining and asking to be carried. In short, he's a great big soaking wet blanket. But the other characters don't just merely put up with him. They love him. They are unflinchingly and unhesitatingly loyal.

Creating a sympathetic main character is hard work. If he or she is too perfect, or deals with everything too easily, the audience smells a rat. But it is so very easy to stray too far in the other direction and come up with somebody who is a pain the neck - who feels everything too keenly. As Smith well knew, human beings will tolerate somebody feeling sorry for themselves if it appears to be deserved, but that toleration can very rapidly turn into annoyance.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Lockdown and Putting Things in Perspective

The UK has been under 'lockdown' since March 23rd. Thankfully, because the weather has been unrelentingly and unseasonably nice, and I have a garden and decent parks and beaches within a 20 minute drive, it hasn't been as terrible as it could have been. We've just spent most of each day in the open air letting my just-turned three year old daughter scamper about to the point of exhaustion. (And unlike almost every journalist, police officer, politician or commentator in the land, I've actually read the relevant Regulations and know what they say, and understand what limits exist on police powers.) And we are comparably lucky here - our government has at least blanched at the miseries being heaped upon those poor souls over the water in France, Spain and Italy.

With all that said, I hate everything about this situation. Regardless of how necessary all of this actually is (and I am prepared to accept there are differing views within 'the science' and we may indeed never know), I am not well constituted for this sort of life. I am used to being 'out there' and I can't abide sitting in the house doing nothing, just watching TV or glued to a computer screen. A day spent out and about doing things is one well spent; a day cooped up indoors is one wasted. And, for whatever reason - I blame the parents - I am psychologically incapable of obeying orders or abiding by rules. I do not get depressed ordinarily, but this feels like this is driving me there.

However, I have been able to take a step back and reassess things. I have read a lot of - let's call a spade a spade - crap in the media about how the Covid-19 thing is a wonderful opportunity for us to live life differently. The only real result of all of this is that life will be either a bit shit, or really, really shit, afterwards for quite some time. Yet I, like I expect you, have been reflecting over the last few weeks on how my personal priorities might need to change. We are heading for straitened economic times in general, and I am no longer entirely sure that my safe career is going to be all that safe. I don't expect to be out of work, but I do expect that the nature of the job will have to change quite radically, and in a way which I will not really like. I am, unusually, confronted with the possibility that I could re-orient myself.

Nassim Taleb (half genius, half buffoon, 100% arsehole) has useful career advice: you should pick a job that will guarantee you a decent income and which won't be particularly taxing, so that you can devote your free time to esoteric pursuits. This way you are not exposed to risk (you have a safe steady job to fall back on) and your weird hobby might, just might, some day come off. This is what Einstein did: patent clerk by day, theoretical physicist at nights and weekends. Being a patent clerk paid the bills. Eventually the hobbyist interest in physics paid off big time.

Most writers also follow this pattern, deliberately or otherwise. Stephen King will be the most well known to readers of this blog - a school teacher who wrote on the evenings and weekends and one day popped out Carrie. Michael Punke would go to his office at a law firm at 5am so he could spend 3 hours writing what became The Revenant before starting work for the day at 8. Scott Adams did something similar when he was originally doing the Dilbert comics. I am a big James Ellroy fan; when he was writing his first few novels he made his living as a golf caddy. He would be on the golf course for most of the day just thinking out his plots, and then he would go home in the afternoon and write all evening.

I have devoted a lot of time and energy to my job, like I suppose most professional people do, over the last decade. I have got a lot of fulfilment out of doing so, but I now start to wonder whether I would get more out of putting a bit more into creating RPG-related things. In other words, maybe it's time to stop treating my career like an end in itself, and instead do the Einstein thing: think of my job as simply being the means necessary to provide me with what I need to pay the bills while I do more unconventional things. Maybe.

All I know is that while I have been sitting here ostensibly 'working from home' every day, I have spent almost of the time I have supposed to have been working writing 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin' stuff instead. Mum's the word: don't tell my boss.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Thinking Really Hard About Trees As Tall As Mountains

I have written semi-regularly about the concept of a megadungeon inside an impossibly large tree. (See herehereherehere and here.) Recently I tried to do some calculations to figure out, essentially, how tall such a tree would have to be in order to have, say, 10-12 'dungeon levels' of 30-50 chambers or more each tunnelled into its trunk.

The answer is: really tall.

Googling around on the internet it seems that 80:1 is a rough rule of thumb for the height-diameter ratio of a stable tree. This will obviously vary between species (and many environmental factors). This means that if a tree is a mile high (meaning a mile from the base all the way to the top of the crown), the diameter will only be about 22 yards and the circumference just under 70.

That's really not very thick if you want to imagine that human-sized tunnel networks are burrowed into it. You're talking essentially about having to fit each dungeon level roughly into a 22 x 22 yard space (yes, I know the area of a circle isn't the same as the area of a square - I'm just using rough figures).

For a mile high tree, then, it isn't realistic to think of the dungeon levels as being sprawling networks of chambers and corridors as a subterranean dungeon would have. Each level would have to be smallish, or maybe with lots of small rooms, or very dense (meaning the rooms are compressed together with only short distances between them), or all three. Or scale would have to be achieved by each dungeon level mostly being spread vertically rather than horizontally - which is hard to map.

For a ten-mile high tree, of course, it's a different matter. There, you are definitely in 'traditional megadungeon' territory in terms of mapping. A tree trunk 220 yards in diameter and just shy of 700 yards in circumference can fit a heck of a lot of dungeon into it. But then one runs into a different problem - figuring out how to map it.

Previously, I argued for using Excel for tree-trunk mapping (see here). The basic idea here is that you imagine the surface of the tree trunk as a 'wrap around', like sections of a cylinder laid out in 2D. You can then plot out where the climbers are on its surface at any moment like in Battleships:

Imagine the above map shows a cross-section of tree trunk measuring 500 x 700 yards, assuming a 10-mile high tree (whose circumference, remember, will be just under 700 yards). Each square here represents a 50 x 50 segment of tree trunk surface. Fine for the circumference. For the height, assuming that the tree trunk is probably half the height of a tree from base to crown, we would need roughly 15 (rather more really, but we'll keep things easy) of these cross-sections to make it to 5 miles, given that each such cross-section as a height of 500 yards.

That is a lot of map, but it is just about workable. It suggests that a way of presenting a megadungeon inside a 10-mile high tree would be to break it down into 15 cross sections of 500 x 700 yards. Each such cross section could have burrowed into it a 'major' dungeon level of 30-50 chambers (perhaps with some sub-levels), together with other mini-dungeons and monster lairs, as well as things like wizards' dwellings, villages, druid temples, and whatever other adventure sites you were to come up with.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Modes of Play, Ranked

Face to Face play is clearly the superior method for playing RPGs. It is the only mode of play which  provides one of the central, and perhaps the most important, benefits of the hobby, which is that it is social and involves getting together physically with friends. You get to play a fun game and you also get to meet friends, which is important for the soul.

It is also by far and away the most convenient way to play. You get to scribble things on bits of paper to show each other; arrange items on a table to show spatial relationships between in-game objects; crowd together around the rulebook to jointly figure out what a certain passage means, and so on.

Finally, it is thoroughly enjoyable to roll dice when other people are physically present and watching and care about the result. Casinos figured this out a long time ago.

Online visual play is the next best thing, because of course it gets closest to resembling face-to-face play, but it has obvious deficiencies which make it in most respects inferior. Interacting behind a screen is just not as good as interacting in the flesh. (We're all of us now experts in this respect, perhaps unless you're lucky enough to be reading this from Sweden.) Online dice rolling lacks the tension-and-climax of the real thing. Connections drop, or lag, which can get in the way of both the practicalities of running the game and its social lubrication (comic timing, banter, etc.).

Play by chat (meaning playing through text in an IIRC channel or whatever) is close behind, and almost level with, online visual. Play by chat offers, in my experience, a very different feeling to other modes of play. It tends to be very stripped down and focused on what is actually happening and what the PCs are saying and thinking; it is very intense. It feels much less like a group of friends getting together to play a game, and more like a group of gamers who have gotten together to do what they love. There isn't a great deal in the way of joking and extraneous chatter; because it isn't quite taking place in real time, those elements of the social glue get shorn away, leaving just The Game. The fact that all the players are alone and can't see or hear each other also serves to make it highly immersive. I like it.

Play by email (which would also include playing through Messenger, Twitter, Whatsapp or whatever) and play by post (for instance on a forum, blog or whatever) are of course similar. Neither of them are great ways to play RPGs. There is something about being able to make moves or take turns at any time which, perversely, results in less engagement: the discipline of having a regular time slot in which to play makes a big difference in giving a campaign momentum. Interaction of any kind is painfully, glacially slow - whether asking a question of the DM, engaging in in-character dialogue, or just saying what a PC does and getting a response. Combat is painful. If anybody is slow to post, things immediately get bogged down, like being stuck in traffic. With all of that said, play-by-email is far superior to play-by-post. The virtue of play-by-email is that at least everybody passively receives messages in their inbox and can reply to them conveniently. Play-by-post requires them to actually visit a website, which is absolutely fatal to engagement. I have been involved in PBEM campaigns that have lasted years - one of them is still going, and must be 15 years old by now - and I ran one myself which lasted for over two years, with multiple daily posts. PBP, on the other hand, I have never managed to have any success with.

I doubt that my ranking will be controversial, but hey, it beats reading yet another news item about coronavirus.

Friday 17 April 2020

"A Man of Strong Seed" - Ryuutama AAR, Part III

[The recap for last session can be found here.]

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute 
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know 
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew 
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man

What Happened

We had paused last time on a cliffhanger, with Kestrel about to digest a toadstool given him by a myconid, based on the theory that it would give him transcendental knowledge and allow him to decipher the text on some pieces of slate found in a collapsed chamber in the dungeon. It did indeed do this. He discovered that the slates were a 'saga' written by a dwarf called Cuthbert of Blackhaggs Rigg, who had come with an expedition to this hill in order to explore ancient tunnels and perhaps found a colony. The members of the expedition had entirely converted to the worship of something called the Moray God, and had gone to an underground lake and drowned themselves. Only Cuthbert remained, and the 'saga' was his re-telling of the tragic tale.

However, the toadstool also caused Kestrel to hallucinate that he was being attacked by a plague of locusts. His condition was made worse by the efforts of his comrades to revive him, which included blinding him with magic, and playing music into his ears, which only served to make his hallucinations worse. Eventually, he was reduced to a weeping wreck of a man, dreaming that he had entered into an infinite hell consisting only of locusts, all of them repetitively singing childhood songs, and having to be led about by his comrades by the hand.

All of this noise had also roused the attention of other dungeoneers. These appeared not long after all of this. Their leader, Portos, was a heavily bearded and moustachioed figure armed with a guisarme and with expensive-looking armour and clothing; he immediately took a shine to Ogesana Fall, who he recognised as a fellow man of good breeding, excellent pedigree and 'strong seed'. Accompanying him were his manservant and maidservant: Kyrie, a lanky bald fellow with a short sword, and Maria, a youngish hedge-witch. 

Portos and Ogesana established that both of them were in search of tadpoles - although Portas insisted on referring to them as 'polliwoggles' - having both been employed by mysterious 'powers' to do this. They drew up an agreement that they would join forces, but that at the end of their expedition they would duel to first blood to determine who would get the polliwoggle. They also rested for a time in a chamber which Portos and his comrades had discovered, which seemed safe. This was long enough for Kestrel to return to normality, at least, although his thinking remained muddled from the effects of the hallucinogen.

Portos's expedition had discovered a side chamber which appeared to be architecturally unstable, but which appeared to contain a figurine or statuette of some kind in an alcove. They had also discovered a way down deeper into the caves, and had heard sounds of water coming from that direction. Ogesana decided to investigate the side chamber first. Indeed, the ceiling of this chamber was sagging dangerously, and indeed, there was an alcove in its far wall containing a statuette of some kind. Ogesana went to retrieve it, creeping gingerly forward, but his efforts at stealth were to no avail - the ceiling caved in and gave him a nasty head wound. But he did managed to get the figurine, with some help from Jojo. 

The figurine proved to be brass one, depicting a moray eel rearing vertically upwards. At its base were words written in the same script as on the slates: Kestrel was able to read it as saying simply, 'Beneath, Infinity'. Maria attempted to tend Ogesana's wound, the pair having struck up a flirtatious bond of a kind, but eventually the group decided not to waste any healing herbs (of which they had one bunch) on him, and to press on downwards into the caves to find the source of water.

This involved a small amount of back-tracking and then a downward plunge into the black underworld. Eventually the explorers emerged into a very large cavern filled with stalagmites. Edging their way around it, they came to a large alcove, taller than a man, in which were the shattered stone fragments of what must have been a statue. Only its plinth remained, again bearing the motif, 'Beneath, Infinity'. Scraping through the rubble, Jojo discovered a beautiful golden dagger hilt, designed to look like a coiled eel with the open mouth at the pommel, and with a circular grip guard depicting waves. 

Immediately, it became evident that there would have to be a duel after the expedition was over between Ogesana and Portos to determine who would get not only the polliwoggle but also any other treasures recovered. Reluctantly, this was agreed, with the details planned to be hashed out later.

They continued exploring and came soon to a vast, dark, underground lake with a pebbled shore and no end in sight - which seemed to be moving with a very gentle wave-like motion. Through clever use of echolocation and Jojo's flute [I have no idea if this is even remotely possible] they established that there was solid rock some distance away in one direction, but that the lake seemed to expand limitlessly in all others. 

As they were doing this, THINGS rose from the depths. The skeletons of dwarves, grabbing hammers, and some hideous tentacled beast that seemed to be made of pure water. Battle commenced! But the fight, ultimately, was rather one-sided. Our brave explorers were victorious. But this did not come without cost: Ogesana was felled, left unconscious and at death's door. The task next time would immediately be how to save him.


This was a fun session but Ryuutama does increasingly have the feel of a 'beginner RPG'. The rules really aren't suited to creative play, and the combat system very rapidly becomes insufficient to adjudicate what's going on unless you treat it like a 'you hit me, now I hit you' Final Fantasy-type fight. Still, I'm looking forward to next time and what awaits our brave adventurers beyond the lake.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

The D&D Clerihew Challenge: Once You Pop You Really Can't Stop

You may remember my post about D&D clerihews, which took the internet by storm in February 2017. No? Nor did I until just before. But it popped back into my head and I re-caught the clerihew bug.

All you have to do for a D&D clerihew (and I wasn't even trying to make that rhyme) is to write a four line poem, AABB, about a D&D creature. Let's try some. This time I swear it'll go viral. (Are we allowed to use that metaphor anymore?)

A sphinx
Never blinks
And never lies
But they do get sore eyes

Don't bother keeping scores
When playing darts
Against xvarts

Like forks
Which are useful when eating pies
And for jabbing in peoples' eyes

A green hag
Always carries a bag
To hold spell components
And the dried gonads of former opponents

Have big brains
And blue skin
And a taste for gin

Of farts
And decomposing body parts

Like rhubarb fools
But what will steal their hearts
Are eyeball tarts

Interesting fellows
Are Derros
They like torture porn
And long walks along the beach at dawn

I make no apologies.

You get a gold star if you can do one containing a rhyme for "giant", "illithid" or "kobold".

Saturday 11 April 2020

"We All Like Water" - Ryuutama AAR, Part II

[Last session's recap can be found here.]

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute 
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know 
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man

What Happened

The PCs spent the night at Samantha's windmill, having agreed that in return for a safe haven they would fulfil whatever she desired of them in the morning. Having eaten well and sung great songs of their former glories, and been well fed by Samantha's starling servants, our brave adventurers settled down for the night. On the morning, they discovered the nature of Samantha's request. The witch had a rivalry with a mysterious neighbour, both of whom were competing to try to capture one of the giant tadpoles which had emerged from below the ground in a prior epoch. [See the background to the setting here.] Samantha suspected she knew the location of one of them, in the roots of a hill about two days' walk away. But for some reason she was unable to scry inside, and she was unwilling to risk danger on a wild goose chase. So she wanted the PCs to investigate, and gave each of them a single pebble to carry. She would be able to see through these pebbles and confirm whatever the PCs discovered. If they found a giant tadpole, she would know, and likewise if they didn't. If they managed to bring the tadpole back physically, so much the better.

The PCs set off. The first day brought more energy-sapping rain, but also an encounter with a friendly, or at least nonaggressive, myconid, a thing resembling a person made from the stalk of a mushroom. The PCs traded some of their rations with it in return for 3 exotically-coloured toadstools, though they were unable to discover the true nature of the things as they could not communicate with the myconid beyond gesture.

The next day was fine and the PCs made good progress travelling through open moor. They eventually came to the hill which Samantha had identified, which, sure enough, had a ravine cleft into the middle of it, with a large cave at the top. The PCs immediately realised they had planned poorly. They had no rations for the return journey, having run out that day, and no torches or other light-sources, or rope. They were able to remedy the problem of lack of light because Kestrel had no difficulty getting a fire going. Perhaps unwisely, they chose to ignore their other difficulties and press on into the cave (leaving Bartholemew to munch on grass outside.)

They immediately regretted not having a rope, because as soon as they were inside the cave they were having to ascent a steep slope of scree. But they luckily managed to get to the top without injury. They were then faced with a T junction - the left arm feeling somewhat colder than the right. Ogesana, reasoning that tadpoles are cold-blooded "so they'll like cold places", suggested left, but he was outvoted and the gang went right. They soon discovered a large open chamber with a number of doors. Listening at them, they heard nothing, but Hunter discovered one was rotten; he kicked it down and was confronted by a large cave cricket, as big as a horse, which immediately set to a shrill keening with its legs and frantically backing away from danger. Hunter and Ogesana tried to placate it, to no avail, while Jojo watched the other doorways. He was able at least to provide a warning when one of them opened to reveal two filthy, goblin-esque things decorated with feathers.

The situation could easily have turned violent. But our PCs in this game are explorers, not dungeoneers. They chose parlay. The creatures showed a willingness to listen, although they thought the quest for a tadpole to be absurd; they decided to summon their leader, the Great One, and his shaman. 

Minutes later a flock of the things arrived, together with their two leaders - the Great One, wearing a wooden sun mask painted black, and the shaman, wearing a similar mask painted red. They interrogated the intruders, but were soon won over by an unlikely gambit - Ogesana's observation, brought up because of their discussion about where tadpoles might be found, that all living things have something in common: a liking for water. Having established that, indeed, everybody present liked water, the ice was broken (pun intended) and the goblin-things told the PCs that these caves did indeed contain an underground lake far in its depths. But they themselves were terrified to go there and knew little of it; the shaman vaguely remembered a tale from his childhood suggesting that the lake led ultimately to that vast source of infinite water from which all seas, rivers, springs and lakes derive.

The PCs said their farewells, having promised to report back to the goblin-things their findings, if they did not die down there in the dark, and set off exploring the caves. They proved to be labyrinthine. Eventually, the PCs stumbled upon a half-collapsed chamber that was full of strange rectangular shaped pots, knee-high. These turned out to be filled with slates, each covered in unknown writing. They showed the slates to Samantha through their pebbles, and were about to move on, but then Hunter struck on the idea of eating one of the toadstools they had got from the myconid, reasoning that ingesting fungus can sometimes give a person insights which they would not ordinarily have. That seemed like a good cliffhanger at which to end.


An hour and a half is too short, really - it felt like we were only just hitting our stride when we had to end. But needs must. I remain to be convinced by Ryuutama. I experimented with the travel rules a little bit so as to try to make the effects a little less random, but in the end those rules barely featured because the players happened to be lucky with a lot of their/my rolling. 

I also deliberately 'soft pedalled' on violence and aggression and the negative consequences of poor decision-making, on the basis that this campaign is supposed to have a more friendly and innocent 'Squaresoft' feel. The player likewise refrained from doing what they would have if it were a different system. If this had been D&D there would have been no way the encounter with the goblin-things would have been peaceful. But it worked nicely.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

On Kings Versus Chiefs and the Meaning of Words

When I was a university student I read a lot of Richard Hakluyt, a 16th century English writer who chronicled the early English exploration of North America, as well as journeys to many other parts of the globe, often through interviewing eyewitnesses. I don't remember his works in any great detail, because this is now 20 years ago, over half a lifetime, and while his major works are on Project Gutenberg (apart from the one that I spent the most time on, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of All by Our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons), most of them are sadly practically unreadable because the (extensive) footnotes are integrated into the body of the text.

What I do remember was the, to us, charming eccentricity of 16th century English. Nowadays we refer to Native American chiefs as, well, chiefs. But Hakluyt called them 'kings'. This small difference in terminology makes a big difference to how the reader conceptualises things. Think of a 'chief' and you picture the head of a small, fairly disorganised and informal tribal group. Think of a 'king' and there's an organised, formal kingdom with the trappings of sovereignty. I'll leave the critical interpretation of the shift in how the leaders of Native American polities were referred to from 'king' to 'chief' to the historians - the implications are obvious to anybody who thinks about it for five seconds. I'm interested here in the lesson this holds for RPGs.

It's common to refer, for example, to orc, or kobold, or goblin (or whatever) leaders as 'chiefs'. Things change when, instead, you start talking about them as 'kings'. Or, for that matter, as kritarchs or oligarchs or theocrats. Just a simple change to a single word results in a significant change in the way one thinks of the underlying society. A kobold chief is the boss of an unruly gang of disorganised kobolds. A kobold oligarch is something else. And this isn't just true for the terms one uses for rulers. A society that has orc 'shamans' is one thing. One which has orc 'priests' is another. There are societies which make goblin shamans, and there are those which produce goblin wizards. They are not the same.

Of course, you can also come at this issue from the opposite angle. You generally get elf lords, kings, wizards and priests. An elf 'chief' suggests something else entirely. Not to mention a dwarf 'shaman'.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

The Implied Appendix N

I expect most of the people reading this blog know what Appendix N is. It has tended in my experience of reading blogs, forums and so on to have been reduced to a kind of canonical list of influences on Gygax when he was creating AD&D 1st edition. Gygax obviously never intended it to be that way, and in his own framing of his list, his love for those authors and works was built on a foundation formed from the stories his father told him as a child, comic books, movies, fairy tales, and books of mythology and bestiaries.

In other words, the Appendix N 'canon' has to be understood as floating on a great sea of fantastically-oriented cultural products with its far shore in the very ancient past, and which probably informs D&D just as much if not more than its purportedly direct influences.

I think of this as the 'implied Appendix N' - the vast ocean of stuff from which the Appendix N books, and hence the many implied settings of D&D, emerge, like clumsy early quadraped things from a Devonian vista. What I mean to say is: Gygax had his direct and explicitly-acknowledged inspirations, but those inspirations were part of a milieu of gargantuan scope and which had great implicit influence on what D&D came to be.

One of the fields of literature which I think undoubtedly influenced Gygax (and Arneson and the rest, of course), probably more than he knew, was that swathe of belle epoque SF and 'boy's own' adventure stories that in my head begins with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and ends somewhere around the publication of The Hobbit (1937). This was a truly astonishing era, responsible for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), Sir H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895), perhaps even Machen's "The White People" (1904), and many, many other bona fide classics with which you will undoubtedly be familiar; what interests me about so many of these books is that, as well as being great things in their own right, they also sort of comprise the building blocks of what D&D is all about.

You have adventuring in search of treasure (Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines); you have dungeon exploration (King Solomon's Mines again, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar' books); you have wilderness exploration leading to exotic weirdness (The Lost World, The Land That Time Forgot); evil humanoids living below the earth (The Time Machine); sinister cults and black magic ("The White People", The Great God Pan, The King in Yellow); and most of all you have daring and derring-do performed by atomised individuals, usually 'men without pasts', who, lacking families or relationships or geographic ties, seem to appear just like D&D PCs, from the ether, to pursue their goals.

Many of these novels read like they could be mid-period TSR adventure modules, the only difference being that they tend to be plotted around one protagonist rather than a group of PCs. The classic example of this in my mind is HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau; you could practically run the novel as a mini-campaign of three or so sessions if you didn't mind a bit of railroading. The PCs are shipwrecked on a mysterious island owned by an eccentric wizard who has some odd-looking servants, and go from there. And many of the great novels of that era are of the same ilk.

What TSR-era D&D and the novels of that era also share in common is an innocent sort of optimistic, diet/caffeine-free machismo: TSR D&D PCs, like Wells or Verne or Doyle protagonists, are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it. There is something appealing and refreshing (in an era of sensitive and moody anti-heroes) about that willingness to just get up and go off on an adventure which I see write large on the fiction of those days and the 'vibe' of D&D in its formative stages.

Friday 3 April 2020

The Real World is Weird Enough/Getting the Band Back Together - Ryuutama AP, Pt 1

Last night I sat down virtually with Patrick Stuart, Nate and David W to play Ryuutama.

At one time this was a real-life weekly gaming group - we played campaigns of Apocalypse World, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D/Yoon-Suin, and a heck of a lot of one-shots and story games, many of which I can no longer remember (although Microscope and In a Wicked Age were certainly two of them). We continued to play Pendragon and D&D 5e for some years online, but had not really sat down to game a great deal together since, I would say, 2015 or 2016. It was great to get the band back together.

I was indeed going to use that phrase as the title for the campaign, but I also liked what Patrick said when discussing whether to play Ryuutama straight (as whimsical, charmingly bucolic occidental fantasy akin to the setting of Secret of Mana), or "weird". As he put it, the real world is weird enough. Rightly or wrongly - I won't venture into the debate here - the UK is now effectively a police state and the population is under indefinite curfew. These are not normal times.

That said, things got weird fast - within less than 5 minutes, in fact. But whatever. Here's an AP report:

The World

Ryuutama lets the players create the world together. Yes, it's that sort of game. But I generally enjoy that kind of thing. The world we created is called Xoft (some Vance with your Ryuutama, sir?). It is carried on the back of a giant horned frog swimming in the cosmic ocean, and bears the scars of great floods from when the frog last submerged itself beneath the waves. One of the horns - possibly both - houses a vast city whose people regularly make war against those living on the plains on the frog's back. Recently, a pangolin-shaped meteorite flew across the night sky and, afterwards, giant tadpoles wriggled up from below the earth, as though emerging from the frog's back like a Suriname toad. There is also a problem of dessertification and a 'dinotopia' of semi-intelligent dinosaurs with human companions.

Yeah, not exactly what I think of when somebody says "charming occidental bucolic fantasy", but there's already plenty I know I can get my teeth into.

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
Ogesana Fall is the leader, partly because he is a noble, and partly because he insisted on it.

What Happened

The PCs began in Hebron Hill, the beginning of their voyage of exploration, which all people on Xoft traditionally do at least once in their lives. The nature of the world is such that each town exists somewhat in isolation due to "reasons", which means nobody really knows anything about other settlements elsewhere on the vast expanse of the frog's back. Voyages of exploration take place to find out, but each such voyage is paradoxically also different from all the others.

It was raining when they set off, and this had the effect almost straight away of weakening Jojo and Kestrel from the sapping effects of the cold and damp.

The PCs decided to get out of the rain. They knew that due north were mountains, north-east were forests, north-west were forests mixed with marshes, south-west were grassy prairies, and south-east were more arid plains. Ogesana Fall, in the mistaken belief that the forests and marshes to the north-east were full of delightful nature spirits while those to the north-west were full of man-eating spiders, suggested north-east. They headed off in that direction, and soon discovered it was dark, gloomy, overgrown, and, basically rather like Mirkwood Forest. They made slow progress.

By mid afternoon they realised that they were approaching a lake. And through the trees, they could make out the threatening shape of a griffon, perched on the shore and gazing at something in the water. The griffon apparently realised they were there, but was unwilling to get into the thickness of the forest where it would be unable to fly. The PCs knew that griffons liked to eat horse flesh, but not humans particularly.

Jojo, remembering that the people of Hebron Hill had a folk tale about a griffon called the Voice of the Sky who they placated with offerings, thought that it might be friendly if given an 'offering' of music. He took out his flute and approached playing a seductive melody which seemed at least to reassure the griffon there was no danger. It crept off along the shoreline, still looking at something in the water.

The PCs decided to investigate. The water was pregnant and dark and pattered with raindrops, but something could definitely be seen lurking below the surface. Thinking it was fish, Kestrel approached with an arrow drawn, ready to try to spear it. But then four humanoid zombie-things burst free from the surface, covered in lake-filth, weeds and sediment, making to pull our brave explorers into the depths.

A very one-sided fight ensued. Ogesana Fall buckled his swash, swinging from willow branches and dancing on top of ants' nests and boulders and thrusting his rapier. Jojo led three of the zombies on a merry chase up the shore, while Kestrel peppered them with arrows. And then the griffon swooped in to finish off the last one, dragging it away to devour.

A job well done. But the PCs realised that in all the excitement Ogesana's donkey, Bartholomew, was missing. He had clearly been spooked by the violence, or else the presence of the griffon, and decided to find somewhere safer. A search instantly took place, Kestrel tracking the donkey's path through the bracken; by late afternoon they finally found him, after having been led very far off their way indeed. He was in a clearing on a small hill rising up above the trees, silhouetted against the skyline - and next to him was a large, imposing windmill built of black stone.

Ogesana summoned the donkey, but as soon as this took place the owner of the windmill appeared. This was a woman in her late 50s, with long grey-blonde hair down to her toes, smoking a pipe that was emitting vast plumes of foul-smelling smoke. From the windmill a flock of chattering starlings at that moment took flight, soaring into the air in a swarming cloud before settling back on the roof, hissing and whistling to each other like many gossiping children. The PCs thought there was a reasonable likelihood this was a witch. They hoped, quote, it was "one of the good ones".

Samantha invited them into the windmill. In it, they found a homely kitchen and pantry with a bed to one side, the only unusual object being a large flat bowl full of impossibly clear water, resting on a plinth. Samantha made them an offer. They could stay the night in complete security and safety, and indeed could return to do so whenever they wished. But in return they would have to agree to whatever request was placed on them in the morning, and fulfil it. Ogesana ventured that they should agree, whereupon Samantha took his word as an oath, binding on the whole group. For good or ill, the PCs settled down for the night.


And we paused there. Because it was our first time with the system the fight took ages, and we didn't have much longer than 90 minutes available. I already wonder about Ryuutama. I like the 'feel' of the art and mood. I am not sure that the system can survive the scrutiny of experienced RPGers, particularly of the 'old school' stripe. The combat system, for instance, is highly abstract and based essentially on the Final Fantasy model, with the PCs and monsters being arranged in "ranks" and taking turns to attack each other. This quickly fell apart the instant anybody began to think outside the box with the scenery and environment - which indeed happened almost instantly. The way the system makes travel 'interesting' is also contingent on placing what are effectively random conditions on the PCs through a fairly boring series of dice rolls which you are then supposed to 'role play' to bring to life. It is not big on PC agency as a factor in determining what happens and how bad it is. And I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D. With that said, I really enjoyed the session - it was great fun and I'm already looking forward to next Thursday.