Friday 31 July 2020

What do you call this feeling?

There is a certain sensation which has no name that I am aware of, but which I am sure you are familiar with. It is the feeling of atavistic thrill that runs down your spine and makes your pulse race when you see something that it has hitherto been suggested to have awesome and almighty power suddenly reveal it to devastatingly destructive effect.

I was reminded of this feeling recently when re-watching Laputa: Castle in the Sky. If you have seen the film, you will know the scene I am talking about - it is the one in which the half-damaged robot, which had previously been thought defunct, is suddenly activated and single-handedly destroys an almighty fortress and, presumably, kills hundreds of people in the process. Sadly, YouTube only has this short Metallica-ized clip, which doesn't do it justice, but still:

Miyazaki loves these moments - his earlier films are full of them. But so does Hollywood. You will be familiar with these examples:

There are plenty of others - in literature as well as film (China Mieville, for example, has always struck me as a writer with a keen instinct for this sort of scene).

Where does this feeling come from? Partly, it is pure child-like love of destruction. Partly it is a kind of received glory: as though one is somehow vicariously edified by a naked display of power to which one is not subject. Partly it is sheer anticipation, combined with a feeling of hidden knowledge: you know what is coming when the Terminator walks out the door of the police station, but the police - those poor fools - do not, and that can't fail to excite. And partly, perhaps, there is even a sense of the sublime in these moments - a sort of transcendant beauty in the aesthetics of strength and might. 

In summary, human beings like watching a god-like entity squish things. But we don't appear to have a single word, at least in English, which describes the sensation. 

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Samples from Yoon-Suin II

The new version of Yoon-Suin will feature 12 new keyed adventure sites. Here are the introductory sections for three of them, based in and around the Yellow City.

The Mourning Garden of the Unrequited Lover 

The garden was created in joy, and defiled in sorrow by the one who made it. A brahmin who wished to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials with a pleasure garden to present to her groom, she was spurned at the last. Her name is now forgotten, but the garden remains as a testimony to love’s cruelty and caprice. It now lies hidden behind high walls of pale rose-coloured stone with its secrets and treasures intact. Human children from the quiet neighbourhood which surrounds it jest in whispers about climbing those walls someday, but even the bravest cannot be dared to do it; the best they can manage is to cluster at the garden’s iron gate, gaze inside, and then scatter in shrieks of delighted terror at some imaginary glimpsed-at horror within. 

The Hornet’s Sting 

Navigators in the Gulf of Morays make use of the constellation of the hornet as their guide, because the bright star at the point of its sting does not move in the night sky. Lying directly under this star is a small island. Some quirk of geographical fortune gives it an appropriate shape, for while it sits low on the horizon for the most part, at its northern end there suddenly spikes up a sheer needle-like crag rising six hundred feet into the air. From a distance, this even seems to slightly curve like the stinger of some vast insect otherwise submerged beneath the sea. For these reasons the name of the island is obvious, and is the same in all of the languages spoken by the many peoples who call the Gulf of Morays and its coasts home. Despite its fame, however, rumour keeps visitors away. It is said that on its peak there lurks a spider the size of a dragon, who claims as sustenance all who set foot on the island, and that its waters are considered sacred by squid-men, who will hunt any who trespass there to the ends of the earth. 

The Museum of Relics Gathered by Wu-U the Brave and Magnificent on His Voyages to the Four Corners of the Earth 

Red Hill is a neighbourhood of faded grandeur growing ramshackle and senescent. The Old Town surrounds it on three sides; the visitor cannot escape forming the impression that, like a sand bar exposed to the rising tide, its sleepy streets and half-deserted markets will soon be engulfed by the emptiness around it. At its very edge, at the point where the Old Town can truly be said to begin, stands Wu-U’s museum: a two-storied building of white stone with elegant colonnades and handsome tiled floors coated with dust. Whether Wu-U was brave or magnificent, as the sign above the entrance to his museum suggests, is not now remembered. Nor is it known whether he did indeed travel on voyages to the four corners of the earth - or even take any voyages at all. It is at least thought that relics can indeed be found inside, although the locals - despondent, decrepit, discouraging - insist that there are probably ghosts and demons protecting them, and that it is surely not worth entering to find out. 

Thursday 23 July 2020

Absolute freedom

A theme I have returned to over the years is the necessity for there to be some form of constraint in order for creativity to truly flourish. This can be structural (as in most traditional verse forms from haiku to sonnets, or time signatures in music) or substantive (for instance, the genre expectations of romance, detective, horror or 'literary' fiction). Yes, ideas do come from the ether, as it were - broiling up from the subconsious when taking a shower, driving, or what have you. But the actual drawn-out process of creation of something worthwhile - something that people will want to read, touch, look at, hear - needs these kinds of restriaint. 

Without any limits, absolute freedom tends to result in paralysis or wishy-washiness. I can think of no better elucidation of this point than this clip, from My Neighbours the Yamadas (ignore the first couple of seconds and forgive my shaky phone hand):

Most of the basic structural elements of D&D - character classes, stats, random encounter tables, hexmaps, monster stat blocks, and so on - can be thought of as a framework of constraints within which the imagination can be channelled and given effect. They prevent the DM from doing literally anything he feels like. Paradoxically, this results in more interesting results than most very loose and free-form games, which ultimately tend to achieve rather bland outcomes in actual play (in my experience). 

Monday 20 July 2020

Charming Anachronism and the Historical Future Campaign

There is something deeply appealing about the future depicted in 60s and 70s SF. One in which there was interstellar travel, teleportation and aliens, but also filing cabinets, radios, and fax machines. The juxtaposition between dreamy vistas of fantastical alien worlds and the tactile quality of old-fashioned realia is intoxicating to me. I long to live in a time in which it is possible to fly to Pluto, but in which you have to buy a paper ticket in cash at an old-fashioned ticket booth in order to do so. 

The reality which we once inhabited is now rapidly disappearing before our eyes. The forests of telephone handsets, rolodexes, pencils and printers that used to surround us are vanishing into an ephemeral and textureless desert of digitised haze. As this happens, the charm of technology that you had to touch grows ever stronger. And as a result, the escapism of alternative futures - the futures that were possible once, but are no longer - begins to entice.

One of my favourite ever campaigns was a game of Cyberpunk 2020 which was set in 2020 as it was seen from the 1980s: all Soviet threat and looming nuclear war, mobile phones that looked like bricks, an AIDS pandemic in full swing, and nary a tweet in sight. If you wanted to take a picture of something, you had to have a (film) camera; if you wants to contact somebody, you had to call them up - or at best bleep their pager. 

Let us call this type of setting a 'historical future' campaign. This is one set not in a realistically imaginable future of the present, but in the actually imagined future of a particular point in the past. 

I am currently reading Jack Vance's Demon Princes series, set many hundreds of years in the future, but in which there is no internet (and indeed hardly any computerisation), people read physical newspapers and magazines, and everybody uses 'fake meters' to check notes and coins for counterfeits. A Demon Princes campaign would, in other words, be a historical future one - it is the far future as envisioned in the late 1960s. 

Another possibility would of course be the delicate utopian vistas of 1920s SF, of Metropolis or Ralph 124C41+ - glimmering, gleaming, calling us to a place in which pain is forgotten and our only limits are our own minds. 

The question then becomes: what is the earliest point in which a historical future campaign can be rooted? It is only since the 17th century or so that we can be said to be living in a world of what Foucault called 'open historicity', wherein it made sense to think that a far future could exist at all. Before then, it seems, when people imagined the future they were only at best seeing End Times. A historical future campaign set in the events of the Book of Revelation would be quite something. But then again perhaps this is the point at which a historical future campaign becomes an impossibility on a technical point, because for some those events remain a realisable future still. Whether or not, then, such a campaign would be truly science fiction or would be more properly called eschatology, is a question I leave to the theologists. 

Friday 17 July 2020

For Old Times' Sake: LotFP is Worth Saving

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I very rarely publicise products in general. This is for the simple reason that I don't buy many of them. I will now speak frankly: I think most stuff out there, 'OSR' or 'official' or otherwise, is over-priced and over-hyped.

The original Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules are an exception. They are in my view the best thing to come out of the 'OSR'. They were reasonably priced. They were well-made. More importantly, they were rock-solid rules which remained true to the spirit of older editions of D&D while being genuinely distinctive in their own right.

Most of the other exceptions, that I can think of, too, also have Raggi's fingerprints on them to some extent or other. These are Veins of the Earth, Vornheim, the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, Death Frost Doom, and - qualifiedly - Isle of the Unknown.

Beyond that, Raggi is one of perhaps three or four people who can genuinely be said to have had a significant role in building what we now think of as the OSR. If he hadn't been around, I am not sure that the thing would even exist; without doubt, it would have been much less significant in scale. For good or ill, if you consider yourself to be 'into' the OSR in some sense, you have to acknowledge that Raggi played a major role in building the scene. He certainly inspired me; his early posts (I am thinking in particular of thisthis, and this) played a vital part in getting me to want to really re-involve myself in this fundamentally ridiculous hobby and take it seriously once more.

To that end, and if you think, like I do, that there is more to life than whether or not people always say and think the right things, read this update and consider helping him out. Perhaps you have always meant to buy a particular LotFP book but haven't quite got round to doing it. Perhaps you like the look of some of his new stuff. Whatever - you can make up your mind for yourself. And, as Raggi himself puts it, if you want LotFP to disappear, you don't have to do anything at all.

Thursday 16 July 2020

The Most Gameable Ghibli Film

Ghibli is in the air at the moment (yeah, yeah, I know, Patrick, Soft D&D is not really supposed to be RPG Ghibli). It coincides with me revisiting some of the old Ghibli classics in recent weeks. Last night it was Porco Rosso, or 紅の豚, to give it its proper title, and it struck me while watching it that, of all Ghibli films and settings, it is probably the one in which I would most enjoy setting an RPG campaign.

The film's story takes place in what is effectively the setting of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - that strange combination of time and place, the Adriatic between the Wars, coated in a halcyon glaze but caught between a dark past and a bleak, threatening future, like the space which opens up between storm clouds on a summer's day to let hazy golden light gleam through. Sun-bleached beaches and hidden inlets and islets on the Dalmatian coast; deposed nobles and royals from across Europe drinking vermouth or cognac in hotel bars; women enjoying the first flush of newfound liberty; men unsuccessfully escaping grim military pasts; jazz music; spies and outlaws rubbing shoulders; laughter in the air above a background whisper of impending doom. Europe's last hurrah before its final frenzy of bloodletting, made worse because everybody knew what was coming, knew what it would be like, had experienced it first hand, but did it all over again anyway.

For all its sense of loss, it is a time and place which one would like to visit and inhabit. Miyazaki clearly would, anyway. His portrait of it is affectionate, even loving. (And it is one he revisited with similar occidental enthusiasm in The Wind Rises.) The Adriatic has surely never looked much more idyllic on film, and everybody who lives in it - even the villains - seem to share a bond of camaraderie that cannot be easily untied. There are rivalries; there is violence; but there is, above all, fun. This is a setting you really want to explore, full of big personalities who you want to get to know over cocktails. It is the Mediterranean as it can only be imagined by an optimistic Japanese man who by nature sees the best in everything.

What would PCs do in this picturesque setting? Hunt down 'sea plane pirates' in their secret lairs, or become pirates themselves. Escort cruise ships or cargo vessels. Get paid to search for spies, or to spy on others. Protect former soldiers from others wanting to settle old scores, or perhaps get involved in the settling of scores themselves. Maybe, if you wanted to get supernatural, they could pursue rumours of ghosts haunting the battlefields of the Balkans - or perhaps search for ancient Roman burial sites or attempt to track down monsters from folklore or myth. And all of it with sea planes - natch.