Thursday 26 November 2020

Fantasy and the Human Condition

We have far too much of this kind of article in our lives: the random and semi-plausible armchair ponderings of somebody whose only real qualification for public pontificating is that they are reasonably intelligent and articulate. We are surrounded by noise and get almost no signal.  

It's not that I think that trying to understand developments in the arts and literature in their context is without any purpose or interest. Undoubtedly there are many factors that influence why particular genres become popular at particular times. And I'm sure I've written many blog posts along those lines down the years. But we've become too caught up in considering context, and as a result downplay the importance of quality and authorial voice too much. 

Is it maybe the case that the fantasy genre became popular in the mid-20th century not because of the decline of epic poetry, the Cold War, the death of the age of reason, or any other particular social, political or economic factor - but simply because Tolkien wrote a great book and people liked it and wanted to imitate it?

And maybe the reason why they liked it was because it speaks to the human condition - that themes of heroism, of good triumphing over evil, of coming of age, of risk and adventure, happen to be things that people enjoy reading about in general? 

I am much more interested in reading about why The Belgariad is good (an assertion that strikes me as at the very far side of what can fairly be called sane) than I am in learning about what it says about its context (and even less about what it says about the person reading it). 

The Creative Process in Role Playing Games

Iain McGilchrist is probably the most important contemporary thinker, and last night I listened to a good two part interview with him, here and here. One of the themes in his work is how creation requires hard limits and barriers in order to take place at all. I have written on that theme before on this blog in my own small way (see e.g. this post and this one), and it occurred to me on listening to the interview that there was, yes, yet more to say about it as it relates to RPGs.

McGilchrist describes how creativity functions on the basis of limits which are not necessarily externally imposed but can come from the process itself. Hence, a river's flow creates banks which themselves then act as limits on the flow, which further influence how the river develops, produce eddies and currents, and so on. The best example of this, though, I think, is language. Language is a creative process, whose own limits produce the act of creation. 

What do I mean by this? Utter a single word: 'The'. From a completely open range of possible utterances, we have picked one, which itself then limits what can come next. The next word must be a noun or gerund or adjectival complement, trivially, but the subject matter of the utterance is also constrained: the definite article has been used, and not the indefinite one, for example - and that will limit all that follows. Pick a word to follow it: 'man'. Now we are even more limited - we know that the subject of the utterance is an adult male human being, as opposed to all of the other myriad possibilities which it could have been ('fox', 'apple', 'ant', 'Greek', 'big', and so on), and this also further restricts what follows. With each subsequent word, 'bit', 'the', 'dog', we see this closing off and narrowing of possibilities, so that what began with literally anything becomes, with each word, something definite and specific through a process of limitation and restriction: a specific adult male human being biting a specific individual of the species canis familiaris.

The crucial point here is that for the creative act to take place at all it must both contain and consist in its own capacity to restrict itself. Creativity is not the unbridled exploration of a free horizon of unlimited scope. It is quite the opposite. It is a process which is carried out through the imposition of limits (from within itself). 

How is this relevant to RPGs? Well, there are a thousand ways, and I don't have a thousand hours with which to write this blog post, so let's just think about three.

Process. The structure of playing an RPG has the character I described above. One sits down with friends. What shall we play? D&D. A decision is made that restricts potentialities (we will not be playing SF, or contemporary horror, or a detective game). What do we do then? Create PCs. The creation of PCs results in picking options which impose further limits (I will be a fighter, as opposed to a magic-user or cleric; I will arm myself with a bow, as opposed to a spear or sword). The game begins. The PCs are in a tavern (not in a public baths or a castle, not on a beach or underwater). They hear about places to adventure. They pick one (and not the others). They go there. They enter a dungeon. They go left instead of right or straight on. And so on. Put in a very abstract way, the process of playing an RPG is an iterative one in which many possibilities present themselves, but which necessarily close off a great many more others, and in which that model repeats itself indefinitely. 

Dice. The very act of rolling dice is one of closure, but which in doing so produces consequences and hence creative flow. My PC confronts a violent orc. He decides to try to hit it with his sword (not talk to it, not kiss it, not eat it, not throw dust in its eyes, etc.). He could hit, he could miss. The dice closes off one option and tells us it's the other. It restricts possibilities to one. And then that thing happens, and we follow the results. Narrative emerges. Creation happens.

Genre. What's our next campaign going to be, guys? Purple space baboons trade in shellfish on the moons of Neptune? Moles hunt earthworms? Demons made from flowers invade from floral hell? We could play anything. We are paralysed by indecision because, given the infinity of choice available, we will spend the rest of our lives merely listing the possibilities. Or: we can pick a genre, which contains its own constraints of both form and content, and which hence brutally limits us, but in such a way that the actual creative act - the game - can happen at all. We are playing high fantasy, not purple space baboons or moles underground or flower demons from hell. We must have orcs and dragons, swords and spell-books. But now the potential inherent in the sitting-down-to-play-a-game has a fighting chance of being actualised rather than lost in an endless array of never-to-be-realised possibilities. 

Tuesday 24 November 2020


Patron demigods were brought to the Great North in their thousands by the Emperor’s servants during his reign, each being given purview over a tiny sliver of public or private life - a road, a house, a family, a field, even a single room. Many have faded into nothingness now that their cults have disappeared and the places which they inhabited have fallen into ruin. But there are those which remain, often in the most unlikely places: a forgotten cellar on an urban street; a small shrine hidden in a  barn; a toppled statue in a copse of oak in a hidden fold of land; a narrow lane running from nowhere in particular to nowhere special. Some of them are sorrowful, some are imbued with rage, while others have long gone mad; a few, though, retain the devotion to protective care which they were originally given, and exercise it still. 

Each lar has a type, a character, and an archetype. The type gives some core stats and abilities. The archetype adds others. The character provides hooks.






Lar praestitis

Lost - longs for its cult and has become mournful; it may be befriended if given new worshippers

Youthful hero



Lar vialis

Angry - rages against mankind for its abandonment; it may be being placated by locals with sacrifices

Beatific female



Lar militaris

Benevolent - continues to bestow blessings in return for offerings




Lar ruralis

Insane - capricious and destructive, or bewildered and distant; it may have come under the sway of a grindylow, barghest or other similar force



Lar domesticus


Lar compitalicus

Megalomaniac - determined to become a god in the truest sense; it schemes to amass power



Lar augustus

*Only roll in this column if the type has not yet been determined or is not obvious from the lar's location.


Lar praestitis - a guardian or sentinel over a significant location or item, such as a temple, fortress, buried treasure, imperial artefact, etc.

HD 9+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C10, TT [?]

*Can cast holy word, animate object, conjure animals and flame strike 1/day

*Can cast sticks to snakes, continual light, glyph of warding, bestow curse, prayer, hold person, silence 15’ radius and cause fear 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar vialis - a protector of a single road, and those travelling on it. 

HD 7+1, AC 3, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast control weather, earthquake, wind walk, quest 1/day

*Can cast control winds, find the path, prayer, cause blindness 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 10th level cleric

Lar militaris - a patron of soldiers and those bearing arms.

HD 9+3, AC 0, ML 12, Save as F12, TT [?]

*Can cast blade barrier, flame strike, 

*Can cast spiritual hammer, call lightning, prayer, cure critical wounds, cure serious wounds, protection from evil, protection from evil 10’ radius 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar ruralis - a protector of a single field or group of fields.

HD 8+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast control weather, conjure animals, animal summoning III, fire seeds, control winds, creeping doom, commune with nature 1/day

*Can cast insect plague, plant growth, summon insects, sticks to snakes, entangle, prayer, animal summoning I and animal summoning II 3/day

*Casts all spells as an 11th level cleric

Lar domesticus - a protector of a single building or room.

HD 7+1, AC 3, ML 12, Save as C8, TT [?]

*Can cast symbol, finger of death, feeblemind, dispel evil, flamestrike and quest 1/day

*Can cast protection from evil 10’ radius, continual light, prayer, remove/bestow curse, hold person, silence 15’ radius, spiritual hammer and darkness 15’ radius 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 10th level cleric

Lar compitalicus - the patron or warden of a village or neighbourhood.

HD 9+3, AC 2, ML 12, Save as C10, TT [?]

*Can cast regenerate, resurrection, cure critical wounds, heal, weather summoning, control weather, fire storm and control winds 1/day

*Can cast dispel evil, cure disease, prayer, remove/bestow curse, cure serious wounds, purify food & drink, and flame strike 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 12th level cleric

Lar augustus - a lar of the Emperor’s own cult. 

HD 12, AC -2, ML 12, Save as C14, TT [?]

*Can cast animate rock, fire storm, conjure animals, divination, dispel evil, holy word, quest and conjure fire elemental 1/day

*Can cast command, prayer, dispel magic, remove/bestow curse, protection from evil 10’ radius, animate dead and hold person 3/day

*Casts all spells as a 15th level cleric


Youthful hero - the lar appears as an adolescent boy of haughty demeanour, fierce-eyed but solemn, and often bearing a drinking horn. 

#ATT 3, DMG By weapon (sword, spear)+4, Move 150

Beatific female - the lar appears as a woman with an expression and bearing of endless patience and kindness. 

#ATT 2, DMG By weapon (staff, dagger)+2, Move 150

*Can cast charm person 3/day


#ATT 3, DMG 1d8+2/1d8+2/1d8+2, Move 180

*Can cast animal summoning I 1/day in addition to other spells, only summoning wolves


#ATT 2, DMG 1d8+2/1d6, Move 60 (Fly 360)

*Can cast lightning bolt 3/day in addition to other spells


#ATT 1, DMG 1d8*

*Bite causes death within 1d3 minutes on a failed save vs poison, with a -4 penalty

Thursday 19 November 2020

The Love of Mapping and the Beauty of Hexographer


I love Hexographer, and I love Hexographer maps. More than that, though, I love the exercise of map-making. 

I would like to say that this is because making maps spurs me to imagine far off places, fills my heart with the romance of travel and adventure, and makes me long to get on a boat and sail to some far-flung location filled with bizarre animals and alien cultures. 

It does do those things. But, the truth is, more than that, it makes me feel like a god. Watch, as I raise mountains and fill oceans! Watch, as I send rivers slicing through hitherto barren landscapes! Behold, as I cause mighty jungles to grow with a mere sweep of my pen! See me build entire civilizations with my mind - and then destroy them!!!!

How much of the average RPG gamer comprises wide-eyed, imaginative love of wonder, and how much comprises frustrated megalomania and control freakery? Answers on a postcard...

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The Imagination in Times of Lockdown

The UK is currently in a 'second lockdown'. What this means in practice is: you can still go out freely and meet people outdoors (the rules on this are complex; nobody really follows them) but most of the shops are shut. You can go to a supermarket, or to a garden centre, or to a kitchen fitter. But you can't go to a bookshop. For some reason the local dog grooming salon down the road from my house is open and doing a roaring trade; the hair salons and barbers are all closed. (One aspect of British culture has not changed: dogs are still more important than people.) Parks and beaches are thronged with families enjoying the fresh air, even in the frigidity of November, because there's fuck all else to do. What has been achieved by the government can be summarised as: few of the purported public health benefits of 'locking down', but most of the economic costs. 

Richard Condon once said it was useless to try to understand the motives of the kind of people who seek and attain high public office. You might as well try to understand the motives of reptiles or space aliens. They want power. That is all you need to know. 

Walking to work through the centre of town each morning, I see people queuing at banks or at coffee shops, or simply wandering aimlessly about in the desolate ruin of what was once a society. This puts one in mind of running a post-apocalyptic game. Not Gamma World exactly; maybe more like something along the lines of Escape from New York but you can still go to Pret or Starbucks. 

My walk takes me through the main shopping street and then over a motorway bridge to my office - a deserted wasteland of empty cathedrals of commerce. Technically I'm supposed to be 'working from home' and can only go in with special permission; there are about a dozen of us, myself and some colleagues, who worked out back in October that nobody bothers to verify this and our keycards still get us in the building. We prefer to go in physically rather than 'live at work'. These are my band of brothers and sisters; these are the kind of person you would want beside you in the trenches. Now, one feels like running Cyberpunk 2020.

When the day is done, after hours sitting in the eerie peace that descends on an office building when there are about three occupants per floor, I know instead that what I really want is to run a game of Traveller, or Stars Without Number, or a Thousand Suns. To imagine what it was like to be free, to travel, to explore; how it was to live my life on my own terms, to take responsibility for my own conduct and my own goals, and to accept death and risk as the consequences of life truly lived. To imagine liberty. 

Monday 16 November 2020

In Praise of Formula

'Formulaic' is a four-letter word in criticism of books, films, music. We all know how dispiriting it is to encounter a work of art which holds no surprises because we've seen it done a thousand times before.

But there is nothing wrong with a winning formula. I was struck by this yesterday after finishing The Book of Dreams, the last in Vance's Demon Princes series. Each of these books is, in essence, the same. Once you've read the first two, you know roughly how things will turn out. The joy comes not from being surprised by the basic structure of the plot - rather, the opposite. It comes from knowing how things will turn out and being gratified in watching it unfold. As our hero triumphs - the outcome never in doubt - we, the readers, bask in reflected glory. We feel as though we are in on things. When Gersen gets the girl and kills the bad guy, we feel pleasure because we're on his team and we're watching the universe unfold as it should.

This is the secret of Columbo's success. Alone among big name police procedurals, Columbo is a about inversion. You know who did it. You're just waiting to discover how Columbo works it out. The pleasure comes from already knowing the truth and then having your knowledge confirmed. It seems to take advantage of some flaw in our psyche, allowing our lizard brains to take satisfaction from having correctly predicted the course of events even though our conscious minds know that we cheated and had the facts in advance. 

Formula here is reassuring, comforting, gratifying. There are only five volumes in the Demon Princes, but I could happily have read 50.  

The question rightly will be raised: how does one draw a distinction between good formula as I have identified it here, and bad 'formulaic' things which the critics justifiably pooh-pooh? I think it is straightforward. An established format deriving from the repetition of a certain plot structure in a particular series of books, TV shows, films, etc., can be good. The repetition of themes in unrelated works of art is usually bad. It's the difference between Columbo, which set up a formula in its first episode and followed it for the 68 that followed, and Diagnosis: Murder, which added nothing to the hundred thousand detective series that went before it.  

Tuesday 3 November 2020

A Map

Not a finished product but a draft to show to the person who will be drawing the real thing. The red borders are the regions of the Great North, each with its own chapter in the book. There is provision within for every one-mile hex to have at least one thing of interest in it, arranged to taste.