Wednesday 26 August 2020

A Woeful Picture: The Shadow by Jeff Butler (?), Reviewed

There is a prima facie case to be made that the Shadow is an interesting, even frightening, monster. A non-corporeal entity comprised only of darkness; something that was once a person but which has been cursed to spend eternity as a literal shade of what it once was, and to spread that curse as far and wide as it can. You can spin it into something akin to a vampire, or something akin to a zombie plague, or really anything in between. 

You can even get a little excited about how you could give effect in your campaign to the slightly cornball antics suggested by this:

[S]hadows do not hoard treasure. In fact, such earthly baubles only help to remind [them] of their former lives. Instead, the furious undead throw all the treasure they find away, in the same location (often at the bottom of a well or deep pit) where it is out of sight...

Or this:

[S]hadows appear to have been magically created, perhaps as part of some ancient curse...When victims [of Shadows' attacks] can no longer resist...the curse is activated and the majority of the character's essence is shifted to the Negative Material Plane. Only a shadow of their former self remains on the Prime Material Plane, and the transformation always renders the victim both terribly insane and undeniably evil... Fortunately, shadows rarely leave their lairs, and a bold party wishing to rescue a lost fighter or wizard should have plenty of time to venture forth and recover their friend...

But then your eyes stray upwards to the accompanying art, and there the excitement ends:

Is this the worst piece of D&D art ever drawn? It is possible. Admittedly the poor execution is really not helped by the design of the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, which did not provide for the possibility of backgrounds for the pictures - just a stark autopsy-table kind of whiteness entirely unsuited to presenting the creatures in a bestiary. But even granted that, why does the withered and sanity-blasted undead remnant of a once living human being, now existing only in darkness, look like it has just stepped out of Gold's Gym having downed a nice whey protein shake after a particularly vigorous chest-and-arms night? Why is he all spiky and clawed? Where does it say in the text of the entry that as well as shifting the victim to the Negative Material Plane, the curse also turns them into a Warhammer Orc? (Sorry, 'Orruk'.) Above all, why does it look as though Jeff Butler (for I assume it is he), tasked with drawing an illustration for the Shadow entry, just took a reject from his scrap paper pile for some other entry (Orog? Ogrillon?) and filled it in in silhouette with a black felt-tip pen? 

One can picture him at his desk, 4pm on a Friday afternoon, colleagues waiting downstairs to head off down the boozer, hastily scribbling, perhaps with the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth like a 6 year old doing some colouring-in. "Hold on a sec, guys, I've just got to finish off this last one for Zeb!"

The picture is neither scary, not interesting, and it does not evoke a reaction except for mild derision. Good bestiary art makes you want to use the monster in your game. This image provides you with no inspiration for how to do so, and it is impossible, looking at it, to envisage it doing anything much at all. It's an ugly black thing with claws. And that is all. 

0 becs des corbins. 

Monday 24 August 2020

But...what IS a dickhead?

 A long time ago, I wrote this post. The advice it contained was, in summary, as follows:

As a rule I tend not to read much 'GMing advice' on blogs, because I think it all boils down to something rather simple: play with cool people who are your friends, not dickheads, and don't be a dickhead yourself. Mostly it all works out fine from that initial foundation.
For some reason this came back to me the other day while driving, and I started making a list in my head of the behaviours that would constitute being a dickhead. The irreducible core of dickheadedness, if you will. I offer some suggestions; you will I am sure have your own:

  • Dickheads bring sexual content into a gaming session. This is one of the fairly large number of things that traditional conservatives and woke types can merrily agree on: don't bring up the issue of sex unless you are really sure it's appropriate. And never bring up the issue of rape at all, because: why are you doing that other than to either be deliberately edgy, or be a creep?
  • Dickheads hog the limelight. If you feel like you are talking too much, you probably are. If you don't, you still probably are.
  • Dickheads don't come prepared. This is more of a DM thing - there is nothing worse than feeling as though you've phoned in a session - but it applies to players too (at least don't forget your dice). 
  • Dickheads treat everything like a joke. There's nothing wrong with humour in games. Indeed, "Dickheads take everything completely seriously" is the mirror image of this characteristic. But there is a line. And it is easily crossed. An RPG session should have a rich tonal palette. 
  • Dickheads engage in sociopathic behaviour in play. There is nothing wrong with being a rogue. There is something wrong with making the game entirely about how your character robs and/or kills everybody he meets. 
  • Dickheads come with a predetermined idea as to what their character is like, what the campaign will be about, and what events will happen in it, and then purposively work to try to achieve that vision at all costs and sulk when it doesn't pan out. (A friend of mine told a story about a person who turned up for a game insisting she be allowed to play a were-badger, and wouldn't accept that it a) didn't fit, and b) wasn't in the rules. This is dickhead behaviour.) 
  • Dickheads don't adapt to the tone or context of the game. If everybody else wants a 'narrative' style game and you insist on treating everything like a sandbox, you are engaging in dickhead conduct, and vice versa. 
  • Dickheads get way more drunk or stoned than everybody else at the table.
There are also pseudo-dickhead behaviours that can go either way. Being pedantic about your field of expertise can be annoying, but it can also be helpful. A WWII-era game I once ran had a serious gun nut as one of its players. He could have been a dickhead by correcting every tiny error I made as the DM, but in fact he was very helpful in improving the verisimilitude of the campaign. Similarly, being a 'rules lawyer' has the potential for advanced level dickheadishness, but sometimes it can be handy for the DM to have somebody to consult about the rules. 

You are free to add your own suggestions in the comments. 

Friday 21 August 2020

Horror in the Daylight

Horror for the most part happens at night, in the shadows, in the dark. We are diurnal creatures and we rely on our sight above all other senses. Hence, "the night is dark and full of terrors".

But a bright summer's day can also exhibit a certain spookiness - a feeling of impending doom. I was struck by this earlier today while driving around the small English town (a largish village, really) which some of my relatives call home. The day was hot, cloudless, soporific. The town, let's call it 'L', is a short drive away from some of England's quaintest and most exclusive coastal resorts, not to mention beautiful areas of unspoiled natural beauty, and is surrounded by fetching picture-postcard countryside But 'L' itself is what I suppose Americans would call rust belt. It used to be a somewhat important railway interchange and, as the largest settlement for miles around, a commercial and engineering hub. But the railway closed down and the jobs disappeared and almost everyone there is now stoney broke. It is not a place for tourists, who even in the days of Covid flock to the local beaches in their thousands. 

During a hot summer's day in the school holidays, a town like 'L' takes on a malevolent air. Everybody who has any wherewithal whatsoever is at the beach, or having fun in their gardens, or away on a trip. The streets are quiet, populated only by the occasional lost soul wandering about with grubby plastic bags and an aged dog on a leash. The air shimmers with heat. Local pubs are mostly empty (the gastropubs in the villages around are full); suspicious-looking locals lurk in the doorways drinking flat beer and smoking. Occasionally, in the distance, you hear the sound of a car, or a burst of music from the window of some pokey flat. Playgrounds stand empty; swings, see-saws and climbing frames, rusty and overgrown with weeds, look as though they haven't heard a child's laughter in years. You wouldn't be particularly surprised to see Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach appear around the corner with six-guns drawn. At the same time, you feel as though you have slipped into some parallel reality in which all there will ever be, for ever more, is one long, hot, sunny afternoon, and in which there will never be the remotest hope of any event of any significance coming along to break the oppressive monotony which lays over the earth like a blanket.

Is there not the feeling, for those of you who are familiar with such scenes and moments, that there would be nothing particularly untoward if ghosts haunted the streets on days like this? If demons of despair, loneliness and anger lingered in the alleyways of the town, searching for victims upon whom to visit their hatred for the universe? If one's path was not stalked by a murderer who knew that the overwhelming lethargy of the townsfolk would prevent serious investigation of a death? If some nihilistic entropy-worshipping cult did not hide in plain sight, infested in the civic affairs of the town? If behind that second-story window from which music blares there wasn't a group of dabblers attempting to summon a Lovecraftian entity from beyond space and time?

Here, it is not what you can't see which scares you - or, rather, it is not the fact that you can't see which is the source of fear. It is the fact that you cannot hope. On a railway bridge a hundred yards or so from my uncle's house (I wish I had had the forethought to take a photograph) there is a grafito in yellow spray paint: FUCK LIFE. That is the type of horror which descends upon you on a hot day in a small depressed town in rural England. 

Thursday 13 August 2020

Bridging the Minimalist-Maximalist Divide

 Comments on yesterday's post led me to Geoffrey McKinney's 'Mike's Dungeons'. From the blurb:

WHAT THE DEVIL? I took my DeLorean time machine back to 1983. I saw there four middle-school boys playing Dungeons & Dragons, and Mike was the name of the DM. I managed to steal Mike's dungeons and bring them back to 2020. I stole them fair and square, and now you can buy them. Mike did all the work, so we can be lazy. 

DETAILS, PLEASE? This is a massive dungeon of 78 hand-drawn levels, for character levels 1st through 10th. It was made with Moldvay/Cook's 1981 Dungeons & Dragons rules, but it can be used with other versions of the game. 

WHAT IT IS NOT: These dungeons are not for collecting, not for reading, not for gazing at, and not for displaying on your coffee table. It has no art, no stylish formatting, no production values at all. If you aren't going to use and abuse this in a game, there's no reason to buy it. 

WHAT IT IS: The word for this is FUN. These are the dungeons you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. It is a no-nonsense dungeon for playing D&D. You don't even need to study it beforehand. You can run it on-the-fly.

You can see the whole thing previewed on DriveThruRPG and it is very attractively priced.

McKinney's approach here is exceedingly minimal, as you will see. The dungeons are small and simple. There are a handful of house rules. The room descriptions are all (all!) like this:

In other words, when the author says you can run it on the fly, he means it.

There is much to admire here. The final product is cheap, effective at what it sets out to achieve, and fun. You can think of it as being something akin to the 'Billy' bookcase:

In other words, if you need a functional bookcase quickly, perhaps because of a dramatic shelving emergency in your home, you can nip down to IKEA and get this item of furniture for about £20 or something and it will work.

The problem is, I tend to want this:

Indeed, I've even written in the past about this predilection of mine:

My basic idea of a good game book (whether a good rule book, good module, good bestiary, whatever) is that it should be well-designed - which typically means efficiently designed - and interesting to read. Those are the platonic ideals. While the design should therefore be "minimalist" in a functional sense - it should be minimally complex, i.e. only as complex as it needs to be - the approach to content is subject to a totally different set of considerations. Give me good, interesting, exciting, readable, imaginative, dare I say even poetic, prose. I don't want to read a rule book written like a car manual. I want to read a rule book written by Proust, Ellroy or Vance. I don't mind how different the style is, but give me style. Give me voice. Give me something good that I actually enjoy reading for its own sake. 
By the same token, I don't want to read a book full of "This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents." I want a rule book full of real ideas to inspire and entice - ideas that mean something - and which I wouldn't have thought of myself. I can't get enough of those.

So how can we reconcile this? Is there a way for us McKinneyan minimalists and Stuartian maximalists to get along? Is there a way to make the minimalist approach appeal to the maximalist impulse? Is there a way to boil a dungeon or hexmap down to its essence in the way McKinney so masterfully achieves, while keeping it beautiful, or even revealing a fresh beauty of a kind? That is to say, can we make a D&D module into something like a tree by Mondrian - both efficient and artistically compelling?

You will have your own ideas. Here are two suggestions:

1) The dungeon (or hex) key as poetry - each entry constrained by having to be composed in a poetic form. Rhyming would perhaps be too difficult and almost definitely too lame for words, but haiku could work:

A: 20 orcs rest here/they are armed with swords and slings/the west door is locked [stats]

Longer entries could be composed of two, three, five verses, and so on, the only rule being that the number of syllables used must be exact. I could imagine reading this sort of thing to take on a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, and one would be tempted - as one always is when writing haiku - to lean towards the nostalgic, the wistful, the melancholic, the beautiful.

I am also sure that this would result in 'creativity in constraint' being leveraged highly effectively.

2) The dungeon as pastiche: each level loosely inspired by the painting of a particular artist, by a novel by a particular author, by a series of films, and so on. How would it be to make a dungeon the levels of which were all based on paintings by Brueghel? Or Francis Bacon? Or which were all based on a different Conan novel? Minimalist content, but symbolising something bigger in the whole. 

Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Problem with Random Encounters; or, Waxwings versus Giant Slugs

The wilderness is all random encounters.

Very occasionally, in my part of the world, one will encounter a flock of waxwings. Only during the autumn or winter, usually only where there are rowan berries, and most often in the morning. They appear as if from magic at dawn one day before heading off to somewhere new, and indeed to ancient people it probably wouldn't have been far-fetched to have attributed their comings and goings to some supernatural force - like a sign of a coming storm, or an omen of death, or a symbol that the baby in one's belly would be a boy, and so on. 

We now know that waxwings live in northern Europe and, when berries are in short supply over there, they pop over the North Sea to gorge on them here instead. How the waxwings know to do this, and what triggers it, are anybody's guess. The point is, as you go about your business here, particularly if you live in the countryside or have a big garden, now and again you'll see a flock of waxwings between October and March. It happens. 

All wilderness encounters are, of course, like this. All of a sudden your path crosses that of an animal. Why? Well, because there are animals purposively going about their lives and occasionally they happen to be doing what they're doing near you, while you're doing what you're doing.

There is, in other words, nothing unusual about suddenly being confronted with the appearance of another living thing, apparently 'at random', when out of doors.

In the artificial and enclosed 'dungeon' environment, though, I've always thought that something stinks about random encounters. Unless the encounter is with a being that already exists within the dungeon key, and is assumed to be moving around (that is, if the encounter is with a being that is extraneous to what is already plotted), then one is forced to simply put out of one's mind the question of where it came from. Why is this giant slug, which the random encounter table just threw up, suddenly here? Where was it before? And why is it that it it does not appear to have had a material effect on its dungeon surroundings prior to this point? You will all be familiar with having to avoid this sort of uncomfortable question: how is it that this monster has suddenly come along, given that we know that the doors in the W and E exits of this room are locked, and the one in the N conceals a den of ogres, and we've just come from the S? Well, it was following you! So, can we follow its trail? And where does that lead? Er...

The only reasonable answer as to where randomly-encountered monsters in the dungeon come from is: from outside, or from further down. In other words, there is a strong argument for suggesting that the only principled and coherent way to approach the creation of random dungeon encounter tables is that the encounter table for each level should only comprise monsters that could have come from outside and whose trail will lead back outside somehow (whether through cracks to 'other caves' or to the surface), monsters from the dungeon key who are moving about, and monsters that could have come from the levels below. Either that, or go the whole hog on the 'mythic underworld' motif and assume an abyss or hell that permanently generates fresh monsters. 

Monday 10 August 2020

Random Coinage Generator

I am currently reading Flaubert's Salammbo, a chief candidate for what I will in future refer to as the Appendix N of Appendix N - that primordial stew of fin de siecle proto-pulp from which the Appendix N books sprang.

There will be much more to say about this bizarre and wonderful book in a future post or two, but for now, here's a passage from it:

Then when they had come to the far end of the corridor Abdalonim took one of the keys hanging at his belt and opened up a large square chamber, divided in the middle by cedar wood columns. Coins of gold, silver, and bronze, laid out on tables or put away in recesses, piled along all four walls up to the roofbeams. Huge trunks of hippopotamus hide carried, at their corners, whole row of smaller sacks; heaps of bullion lay in mounds on the floor; and here and there a pile had grown too high and had collapsed, to look like a ruined column. Large Carthaginian pieces, representing Tanit with a horse under a palm-tree, mingled with those from the colonies, marked with a bull, a star, a globe, or a crescent. Then could be seen laid out, in unequal sums, coins of all values, sizes, and periods - from old Assyrian coins, thin as a finger nail, to old ones from Latium, thicker than a hand, with buttons from Aegina, tablets from Bactria, short rods from ancient Sparta; many were covered in rust, or dirt, green from water or black from fire, having been picked up in nets or in the ruins of some besieged town.

The idea of all of these different coins bearing the marks of war and disaster is so evocative I just had to think up a random table for generating more interesting treasure:








Fingernail (weigh 0.1cn, 10% of normal value)


As though newly minted


Wafer (weigh 0.2cn, 20% of normal value)

Symbol (key, crossed swords, skull, etc.)

Well-used but otherwise clean


Regular (weigh 1cn, normal value)









Scorched (-2% value)







Rusted (-5% value)



Double regular (weigh 2cn, twice normal value

Head of local ruler of recent vintage



One finger (weigh 5cn, five times normal value)

Head of local ruler of ancient vintage






Two fingers (weigh 10cn, 10 times normal value)

Head of distant ruler of recent vintage




Irregular (average weight of 1cn, average value)

Head of distant ruler of ancient vintage

Melted (divide total amount of hoard by 3d6; this is how many individual chunks of metal there are - each is worth its weight in the respective metal)

Thursday 6 August 2020

A Possibly Ill-Advised Post about George RR Martin

First things first - I'm going to pay what used to be called the "Joesky tax":

Here is a javascript for generating treasure using the OD&D treasure tables from Bat in the Attic.

And here, as a bonus, is a d100 table of ways to open secret doors. 

Now, on with GRRM. You may have heard about this (there is more detail here). It is a complete non-event of a story, or at least should be (it has the feel of a publicity stunt more than anything), and I hesitate to give it any oxygen at all, but in the end I feel like it is such an absurd tale, and so symbolic of the madness of our current moment, that it cannot pass without comment.

We'll leave aside the fact that apparently making a bad and peurile joke about the Oscar statue being a eunuch is now deemed offensive. (To who? Eunuchs?) We'll also leave aside the fact that mispronouncing somebody's name is now considered racist. (As somebody who lived in Japan for almost a decade and has both a first and last name that are unpronounceable to the overwhelming majority of Japanese people because they contain non-Japanese phonemes, let me clear this up for you: it isn't racist.) It seems to me that in both those circumstances George can at the absolute worst be accused of having been the slightly inept and socially awkward nerd that he undoubtedly is, and which anybody who has seen him being interviewed will immediately recognise. I don't know at what point it was that it became a legitimate activity to hound socially awkward people for being socially awkward, and I don't find it remotely acceptable. But I suppose at least his accusers are on a wafer of solid ground in that it's probably his own responsibility that he said those things. 

But much of the vitriol levelled at him seems to be to do with him saying complimentary things about HP Lovecraft and John W Campbell. Now, I could understand this, perhaps, if for some reason George had turned up to MC the awards show and started ranting about Lovecraft and lauding his views about race off the cuff. That would have been a strange thing to do. But that was not what he was doing. He was in fact (here's the punchline if you haven't read the story properly) presenting Lovecraft and Campbell with posthumous awards, because they were both chosen by the people who vote for Hugos. What exactly was he supposed to do in such circumstances, other than explain to the audience why they were both significant figures in the history of the SF genre and why they were considered by many to have been deserving of their awards? "Now, the next two award-winners were both proto-fascists and had appalling views and should never have been voted for by the people who were balloted, who by the way should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, but nevertheless, it gives me great pleasure to announce..."

It takes a special kind of disingenuousness for "journalists" (I use the term loosely) to present the facts in this way. But it speaks to one of the great problems of the age: the unwillingness to extend to anybody the common courtesy that should be available to all human beings, which assumes good faith in the absence of compelling evidence. 

I am not a great fan of Sam Harris. But one thing I like about him is his (ironically, surprisingly Christian) emphasis on forgiveness. The great psychological insight of Christianity is that nobody should have their sins held against them, because nobody can help sinning. We're original sinners, not because of having eaten some fruit on the recommendation of a sketchy snake, but because our sins are all committed at the end of a long chain of causal events, none of which are attributable to our own volition. We say and do things because we are led to say and do them by our experience, our genes, our social context, our characters - in other words, nothing that we have ourselves chosen ab initio. Maybe you disagree with my position on the substance of what George said, but surely you can agree with me on the context: that he probably meant no malice whatsoever. In that case, why all the mudslinging? Why is the default to assume bad faith rather than good?

Until we can remedy that problem, the frayed fabric of our societies will not be repaired. 

[You're free to comment but I will not be replying to comments on this entry.]

Monday 3 August 2020

Don't Hate the System, Love the Players

The regular Ryuutama game continues. I very much enjoy running it, and I think the campaign has hit a nice groove. This is despite the system's many flaws. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the system's deficiencies, as is pretty much always the case, can be accepted and ignored as long as everybody is into the campaign.

This reminds me me of my old adage that I have just thought up: if you get on well with the other players and you are on the same wavelength, the system doesn't matter. If you don't get on well with the other players and are not on the same wavelength, then why are you gaming with them?

Either way you cut it, system is overrated. 

This reminds me of de Jasay's old point that if politicians abide by sensible norms of conduct you don't really need a constitution, and if they don't then a constitution won't help restrain them. This is not quite true in games (what Nassim Taleb pompously calls "the ludic domain"), where rules are generally an effective constraint on action. But RPGs are an exception within the exception; they aren't about winning or losing in the strict sense (winning means everybody is happy to play again next week), so the original point has force. If people are on board with the campaign, you don't really need to abide by the rules or pay too much attention to the system. If people aren't, the rules won't help. 

The exception within the exception within the exception is circumstances in which figuring out the intricacies of the system itself is part of the fun. I'm thinking here of games like D&D 3rd edition, GURPS, and the like. In those cases, system clearly matters; but I suspect the only people who get into those systems in the first place are the groups who enjoy that sort of game. By definition, then, people who play them consistently are already "on board" with the system, and the point becomes moot. 

Saturday 1 August 2020

Somebody Published Something I Wrote

Yes - I contributed one of the four adventure sites for Fria Lagen's The Crypt of the Mellified Mage. It is called 'The Firing Pit of Llao-Yutuy', and depicts the home and workshop of a potter who imbues his pots with the souls of people his followers kidnap. 

It is statted-up for Forbidden Lands, but you could easily port it into any system or setting. (It is pretty 'plug and play' in nature.) There is probably at least 3-4 sessions worth of play in it, and hooks to link it into a broader campaign.