Thursday 27 May 2021

Of Krynn and Urth: Shared vs Singular Settings

Comments on recent entries suggest that there is a need to clear something up about fantasy settings.

Look at the following spectrum:

Urth <------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------>Krynn

Any fantasy setting can be placed somewhere on that spectrum. Across one dimension it serves, of course, as a proxy for quality. Urth is a powerfully rich, unique and dense setting and the books Gene Wolfe set there are wonderful. Krynn is derivative and the Dragonlance books are not very good. 

But that is not the dimension that interests me. What I'd like to emphasise instead is that Urth is a very singular setting - unique, indeed, to the brain of Gene Wolfe and probably unreplicable (except in weak, uninteresting pastiche) by anybody else. Krynn, on the other hand, is a shared one. Yes, I suppose Maragaret Weis and Tracy Hickman came up with it. But it is founded on conventions that anybody who has read a fantasy book will recognise and which are, to a large extent, common property to fantasy fans. (And this is indeed why so many people have contributed to the Dragonlance series' over the decades without really changing the books' mood or character appreciably; Volume 51 of Kender, Gully Dwarves and Trolls is basically the same thing as Dragons of Autumn Twilight - different varieties of cheddar cheese.)

When it comes to novels, I want everything clustered to the left hand side of that spectrum. This is probably also true of those RPG settings which I know I will never play.

But when it comes to actual gaming, it is important that settings lean towards the right. Not all the way, by any means. But at least part of the way there. This is because RPGs and novels are fundamentally different things. Reading a novel is all about becoming involved in the singularity of the author's vision - or, at best, co-creating that vision in one's own mind and imagination. There, distinctiveness is what really matters, and singular settings are therefore best.

Playing an RPG, though, is about running a successful game. It's not chess, football or boxing, but ultimately it is still about communal fun. Sitting down at the table, the players are not simply engaging in exploring the DM's beautiful and unique creative product, but actively contributing. This requires them to have a certain footing on the same ground - to be deploying certain assets of shared property. The setting they are inhabiting does not have to be as derivative and bland as Krynn, but it has to take at least certain assumptions for granted in order for there to be long-term success. 

Tekumel is perhaps the classic example of an edge case. It is a unique setting, for sure, but it perhaps has enough of the shared furniture of D&D - the quest for gold and XP, the basic system, the core conceit of exploration/dungeoneering/questing - to make it gameable. With Yoon-Suin I suppose I was aiming for something slightly to the right of that. 

Another reason for preferring game settings to be on the shared end of the spectrum (rather than the singular) is simply that what happens in a game tends to do extreme violence - literal and figurative - to the setting, and the DM's tolerance for that happening if his game is set in an environment like Gene Wolfe's Urth is probably much lower than if it is set in a place like Krynn. In this respect, a setting like Krynn, the Forgotten Realms, and so on is a bit like an ABBA song - even if Piers Brosnan is singing a cover version in a crappy movie, it still kind of works on its own terms because those melodies are almost part of our cultural heritage at this point. But nobody wants to hear him singing Captain Beefheart. 

[Review] Troika!

Most RPG settings, adventures, modules and indeed systems are destined to go unplayed. This, we all of us accept. But despite the unrealised ambition of these forlorn also-rans, they can nonetheless entertain and inspire enough to make them worth the purchase. Troika! sits firmly within this camp.

I have my misgivings. Is Troika! beautifully written? Yes. Does it exude creative brilliance from every pore? Certainly. Is it the work of an auteur of considerable imaginative power? Without question. Does it stand out as utterly singular in a landscape of bland and samey grimdark S&S OSR bleakness? Undoubtedly. 

But can I see myself playing it? I cannot - except perhaps as a palate-cleansing one-shot. Its strangeness and weird beauty is admirable. But I do not find it really lovable. It strays too far into the realm of whimsy, fancy, eccentricity - the point at which imaginative endeavours become untethered from consequence and begin to feel as though they are just diverting amusements. The concept of playing as an Ardent Giant of Corda, a Befouler of Ponds, a Gremlin Catcher or a Member of Miss Kinsey's Dining Club makes me smile, and the marriage of art and text in all cases is sublime. But can I envisage playing a long-running, open-ended campaign as one of these characters? Would getting your hands on a 'pocket barometer' or 'tea set' feel as good as plundering thousands of gold coins from a dungeon after many tough fights and dangerous endeavours? The idea of a hotel called The Blancmange & Thistle, with a silent mandrill concierge and an old lady who feeds it red bonbons, is a beautiful vignette. But would events taking place within that environment feel as though they really mattered - rather than simply being riffs on a charming idea? 

Troika! bills itself as providing a science fantasy universe in the spirit of The Dying Earth, Viriconium and The Book of the New Sun. But I wonder if that may be the source of my problem with it. I love all of those books - but I do not think that any of them is in particular a good inspiration for an RPG campaign. They are too distinctive, too dense with allegory and metaphor, too much tied to the creative intelligence of their authors. Let loose at a gaming table with a group of five nerds, some beer and pretzels, and the intensity, beauty and intrigue of such a setting would quickly evaporate. There needs to be something more solid, prosaic and quotidian to hang regular play on - something with a feeling of familiarity in which the fantasy can be rooted. What reading Troika! in fact reminds me most of is the experience of reading the Jerry Cornelius series as a twentysomething and thinking: yes, this is all very well, but do I feel the viscerality that I feel when reading Tolkien, Gemmell, Goodkind, Martin? Does this seem like it is a book about real people, or just fancy concepts?

And yet there is a lot about Troika! to love. The system - a well thought-through advancement of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules - is just the right amount of lite. The art is perfectly judged: eerie, discomforting, surreal. There is more substance to it than what I would think of as its closest competitor and also closest cousin, Into the Odd (another work which I appreciate without really wanting to ever run); at times it almost hints at achieving that union of dream and reality at which surreal art is always aimed. The implied setting is compelling. And the writing - so preciously rare a quality - is, heavens, actually good

I will never play Troika! But I am glad that it exists. 

4 out of 5 becs des corbins

[Troika!, published by Melsonian Arts Council and written by Daniel Sell, cost me US$18 in PDF - about £12.50 in real money - and has 116 pages.]

Tuesday 25 May 2021

[Reviews] Lyonesse RPG, The Gaean Reach RPG, and D&D

[The Lyonesse RPG costs £59.99 in print+PDF and is 512 pages long. The Gaean Reach RPG  costs £6.95 in PDF and is 108 pages. Dungeons & Dragons is available in various formats, and from various publishers.]

Emulating Vance has been a central element of RPGs since their inception; arguably, he is the most important single literary influence on D&D, and the sheer range and popularity of his novels has inspired RPG designers for decades. Two recent examples are the Lyonesse RPG and The Gaean Reach RPG, which between them neatly demonstrate the pitfalls confronting designers hoping to imitate or emulate Vance's fiction. 

The Gaean Reach is the biggest sinner of the two. I must confess that I am not in general a fan of Robin D Laws' game design, and I particularly disliked his Dying Earth RPG (which also, of course, tries to imitate Vance). So my review is clearly coloured by my own personal preference. But with that said, I think there is something fundamentally misguided about the premise of the game, which it seems to me seeks only to achieve a thin, superficial pastiche of a small category of Vance's fiction in RPG form. Rather than drawing from what I would take to be the real joy of reading the Gaean Reach books - which is the way Vance glories in the sheer variety of the worlds he creates, and the variety of stories they allow him to tell (mystery, thriller, romance, space opera, revenge travelogue, picaresque, action) - the game instead, in true storygameish fashion, tightly focuses on providing the tools to just tell and re-tell a narrow and rather boring sub-Demon Princes tale of vengeance. We don't get the means to create a great interstellar sandbox to explore, with Vancian themes (more below). Instead we just get a way to randomly generate a bad guy ('Quandos Vorn') who the players are supposed to go out and revenge themselves upon. It's all very, to use that RonEdwardsism, "coherent". 

In other words, we what the game provides is ultimately simply a way to artificially create a replica of the plot of a Demon Princes novel with our friends, together with the kind of overblown, pseudo-Vancian 'witty' prose which so marred The Dying Earth RPG. Reading it is like eating fish and chips in an 'English' themed pub in Tokyo: not as good as real fish and chips, and you don't really eat fish and chips in a pub to begin with.

If the problem with The Gaean Reach is its laser-like focus on pastiching The Star King, the flaw in the Lyonesse RPG is that it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum: it simply faithfully presents the setting of Lyonesse as a typical, bog-standard fantasy world - the kind of gazetteer that was ten a penny in the fantasy gaming scene during the 80s and 90s. Shorn of Vance's prose, ideas, and themes (again, more on that below), Lyonesse just isn't particularly interesting or different as fantasy settings go - and a rather detailed overview of it (combined with some rules) is all the book really provides. Are you interested in the five crimes that are punishable by death in each of the Ten Kingdoms? Do you really need to know that Blaloc is a 'sleepy, inconsequential kingdom'? Does it matter to you that 'richly coloured fabrics' are readily available in Port Posedel? Perhaps so, but I have to confess that reading the novels seems a more enjoyable and valuable activity - not to mention a better way of getting to know Lyonesse - and D&D a perfectly suitable system in which to run a game set there afterwards. If all I'm getting is a rather ordinary fantasy continent in which to set a campaign, £59.99 seems a steep price to pay. The book looks great, no doubt about it. But does it feel like Lyonesse? Not really.

But that brings me to my main point, which is that, for all people might endeavour to design RPGs set in Vancian worlds and emulate Vancian fiction, in actual practice it is 'old school' D&D which - at the table - captures the tenor, tone, and philosophy of Vance's work most perfectly. Whether by accident or design, what really happens when people sit down to play OD&D is that Vance's themes organically emerge. The sense of slightly arch and ironic detachment, oddly reminiscent of pre-modern fiction, eschewing interior monologue, or indeed the interior world of the characters, except obliquely. The sudden shifts in tone, from comedy to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The matter-of-factness of violence and danger, which is always and everywhere underdramatised and all the more dramatic for it. The slight sense of gleeful schadenfreude that accompanies unfortunate events, particularly where the proud are brought low. The methodological individualism of Vance's worlds, where it is actions that matter and everyone is ultimately a master of their own fate. The fact that everybody, from the lowest shopkeeper to the mightiest villain, has motives, desires and interests of their own, rigorously pursued. Emulating Vance is about emulating those qualities of his fiction - the themes which he returns to in every novel, working and reworking endlessly into new and more interesting shapes - and D&D in my experience somehow manages it again and again at the table when the spirit of the original rules are adhered to. It's not, in the end, about aping Vance's plots and language, as The Gaean Reach RPG does, or simply using his furniture, as in The Lyonesse RPG. It's about a way of approaching the fiction that unfolds in play - and it's D&D that does that best. 

Monday 24 May 2021

More on Charming Anachronism, and the Archipelago Setting

One of my major long-term goals in life is to license Jack Vance's Gaean Reach concept and write a game for it. This is the closest I will ever get to living in a world in which interstellar travel is not only possible but common and reasonably priced - yet you have to physically go to a travel agent to buy a ticket (and read magazines in the waiting room while you wait). 

I have written about this fairly recently, but the more that the internet permeates our lives, the more nostalgic I feel for the time before it existed. It is strange, but also perhaps strangely fitting, that science fiction - a genre about the future - should be the vehicle for that nostalgia. Rebooted and retrofitted to deliver not what could be, but what could have been once, and now never will. The future that could have been ours, before we got addicted to smartphones and decided 'likes' and retweets were more important than interstellar travel.

The beauty of the Gaean Reach is also that it is also what I think of as an 'Archipelago Setting'. It is not one region, one land, or one world, but really a setting comprising potentially almost infinite worlds, each capable of possessing great depth and detail (and also great superfluousness and superficiality). The point of an archipelago setting is that it can encompass more or less anything the creator comes up with - but it will have certain thematic undercurrents which link all of its mini-settings together. The Gaean Reach, for instance, possesses mind-boggling scope (the Alastor novels are set in a cluster of 30,000 stars with a population of five trillion, and that's just one of many books and series set in the Reach), but at the same time its many worlds and locations all feel as though they were created and conceived by one man - which, of course, they were.

Other archipelago settings which spring to mind are, of course, Iain M. Banks' 'Culture' books (which I have to confess never really gelled with me), Christopher Priest's The Islanders, CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union books, the WH40K universe, and indeed many space operas. Interestingly, of course, D&D (certainly in its 2nd edition heyday) is in a sense a very diffuse and decentralised archipelago setting, in which everybody's Special Snowflake world is really just another sphere in the Prime Material Plane; in a more metaphysical sense yet, it is an archipelago setting whose islands exist within the heads of every DM who has ever though up his or her own world or region - with sometimes many such islands residing in one head all at once. 

Thursday 20 May 2021

[Review] The Gardens of Ynn

I continue my voyage across the OSRchipelago (geddit?) with The Gardens of Ynn, by Emmy Allen. It cost me US$5 in PDF, and has 79 pages.

The Good

  • The mood. There is, to my eye, a slightly (but only slightly) bleak and melancholic twinge to the Gardens of Ynn, but is very much in sweet spot for me, to the right of 'whimsical' but to the left of 'high fantasy'. It reads like it may have been written by, say, John Bellairs, Arthur Machen, Robert Holdstock or even Miyazaki Hayao; I want to say that it actually reminds me most of Little, Big, but I should more accurately put it that it reminds me of what I thought Little, Big would be like before I had the misfortune of reading it.
  • The setting is briefly but beautifully described in three paragraphs, and then without further ado, we begin. From that point on, it's usefulness all the way down. This brevity is surely to be encouraged. What we have in our hands is, in fact, that rarest of treasures - a largely implied setting. 
  • And here there is much to admire, and imitate. Glass butlers and golem gardeners and walking topiaries and sidhe. Flocks of peahawks and candle-golems and bonsai turtles and unicorns. Hothouses, shooting ranges, ice rinks and mushroom beds. Wineries, fire pits, steam-pipes and towers. Kennels and hedge mazes and gazebos and mask galleries. These are a few of my favourite things.... Just list the words: I'm sold.
  • It may be the only genuinely workable example of procedural adventure creation in the OSR canon?  More importantly, it is a procedural adventure creation system that could undoubtedly be used generically - by simply swapping out the entries in the various tables for others - to create, for example, Mythago Woods, Viriconiums, Angband-style dungeons, dream worlds, Yellow City Old Towns, or any other environment which is subject to continual change and where fixed mapping is not desired. It is no small feat to think up such a system, especially one that is so easy and intuitive to use. 
  • The random tables of search results, treasures, sidhe alterations and the like are a delight - just about eccentric enough to, again, hit my sweet spot on the nose.
  • The art is perfectly judged in tone, and perfectly deployed. 

The Bad

  • Diagrams are not always necessary, but I think they would have been useful in elucidating the procedural generation process, which I found initially to be slightly opaque and awkwardly worded. Similarly, a imaginary, played-out 'example session' would have been helpful in - I am compelled to use the word - 'grokking' how the system of procedural generation works. 
  • A smallish quibble, but the one table which I think falls flat is the one of 'Rumours in Ynn', which often yields results I would imagine most sensible PCs ignoring. 'Rose-Maidens have been using blood to fertilize their plants. They're getting more vicious in their quest for more donors.' OK, I suppose we'll avoid Rose-Maidens, then. I want more 'hooky' rumours than this. 

The Ugly

  • A small thing (no pun intended), but the typeface used throughout is rather tiny and scrunched, and makes things hard to read in places - particularly for an old fart like me who likes to print out the physical book and read it properly.


I must say, I am extremely impressed by The Gardens of Ynn. It is without doubt in the highest echelon of woks that the OSR has produced. Indeed, I find myself feeling jealous. More than that, I find myself wanting to run it - which is a rare, rare feeling indeed.

5 out of 5 becs des corbins

Monday 17 May 2021

[Review] The Red Prophet Rises

I decided to throw some love to the DIY D&D community yesterday by doing something which I almost never do: buying modules. I'm going to review them on the blog. The first is Red Prophet Rises, by The Merciless Merchants. It cost me US$5, and it's 41 pages long.

The Good

  • There is an endearing semi-professional quality to the product. The layout, art, and typeface approximate what one might have expected of the industry standard in the early 90s, except slightly worse. For me this is a feature, not a bug (although see my comments regarding art below); I like the feeling one gets, paging through it, that this is the work of hobbyists who have day jobs. It was, in other words, made by people who embedded within the community of people who would buy and play this stuff. 
  • It is - high praise indeed - efficiently written without being leaden and terse, and usable. No, it does not read like it was written by Marcel Proust. ("A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon.") But it does what it needs to. 
  • Stuff going on. There is always something to interact with, in every keyed area - at least as far as I can tell. This should simply be standard practice by now; perhaps it is - I'm out of the loop.
  • The writer has a very nice way of giving locations an air of dynamism - as though the PCs are not merely happening upon vignettes held in stasis, but are stumbling upon events that have their own trajectories. ("A horrifically scarred, hyena-headed humanoid squats on a flat rock gulping desultorily from a mug of ale. It tilts its head and inspects visitors...[He] hates Velan and attempts to convince the party to kill him.") Great - not just a potential enemy in a room, but a thing with apparent volition. This is practiced throughout, and makes the whole thing eminently usable. I almost feel one could run it on the fly.
  • Nice new spells and magic items.
  • No railroading. What is presented is an adventure site in the truest sense - a site in which to have adventures. Not an imposition of an adventure upon the group.

The Bad

  • Perhaps I am being unfair, because this is an entirely subjective criticism, but the overall tenor of the setting is not to my taste. It is to my eye very much situated in the kind of Raymond E. Feist or Steven Eriksson vein of what I call MDF - Melodramatic Dark Fantasy. There is lots of doom, blood and misery. Everything feels portentous. Nothing really raises a smile. Not so much LotFP's excessive gore and horror, but more a prevailing mood of po-faced epic fantasy. This more than anything else would probably discourage me from running it.
  • Far be it for me to criticise, but it could have done with a proper proofread. 
  • The DM is encouraged to give little XP bonuses for PCs doing intelligent things (100 XP for using the trappings of guards as a disguise) or for doing vaguely plot-related activities (500 XP for rescuing a particular prisoner). I'm just not a fan of this. If PCs behave intelligently the results should be their own reward - likewise if they do something significant, like rescuing an NPC from harm. Put more simply, I prefer the rewards for good play to develop within the fiction (intelligent use of disguise helps you get past the next set of guards, for example, rather than giving you +100 XP). 
  • Irregular coin totals (98gp, 133sp, and the like). Have we fought and died in vain? Round them to the nearest 25, for heaven's sake. 

The Ugly

  • I feel guilty for confessing that my personal preference is for no art rather than bad art. I have a soft spot for truly terrible and amateurish art which does not present itself as anything other. But too many of the pieces here aspire to be good, without quite getting there. I would have preferred the module to have had mostly text and maps (or to have used stock images) if the alternative is slightly drab and uninspiring illustrations. 


This is worth purchasing. My misgivings are mostly due to personal taste; in terms of the nuts and bolts, this is an exemplary module.

4 out of 5 becs des corbins

Saturday 15 May 2021

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (3): Iron Golem and Aquatic Elves

There is no further sign of Sleep, for the time being at least; if he indeed creeps among the cedars, he is too quiet and too clever to show even a trace of his presence. The Skurtch, full of the magnanimity of victory as well as wine, goes to look in on the Sucklings and finds them still greedy at the teat. It will be a long time yet before they slumber. The tournament can go on.

The next Gods to be paired against each other are the Elder Sister, unsmiling and haughty in her grey cuirass and greaves, and Lap-Laz, reptilian and blue. Lap-Laz wastes no time in revealing his champion: a great armoured figure forged of solid iron, ponderous with grotesque weight, which he sets on the blanket to a round of gasps from the onlookers.

"Wasn't it you who was complaining of the use of poison in the last bout?" hisses the Elder Sister as she watches the golem march across the felt. "How can my minions even harm that construct?"

"He is like all sticklers for fairness," says the Droll Knave, who is busy slurping a gourd of apricot brandy. "When he personally is concerned, all of a sudden the concept becomes flexible."

The Elder Sister sniffs and sets her shield face down on the blanket. Out of it emerge a host of greenish, web-fingered, flap-footed elves, dripping salt water from their lank hair, wielding nets and tridents. They are led by three mighty warrior women and a great hero carrying a long lance; hunched and ungainly on the land, they arrange themselves into four groups - the women each lead a band of 20, and the hero a band of 16. 

"We must make this a fair contest!" says the Skurtch. "Those sea elves cannot hope to survive!" 

"Agreed," says a voice from the onlookers. "What pleasure is there in watching a slaughter?" 

"Here," says the Droll Knave. He steps onto the blanket and taps a fingertip to the tip of the aquatic elf hero's lance. It begins to gleam with yellow light. "That will give them a fighting chance."

The first band of elves, led by the hero, circle the golem. Their tridents cannot harm it. They plan to trap it with nets long enough to give their hero a chance to damage it. Four race forward and surround it, and hurl their nets. Three go astray but the fourth covers the golem. The hero then darts in and thrusts his lance into its thigh. A pathetic scratch, but a scratch nonetheless. The golem tears away the net with its fists. 

The four elves in the first wave retreat; four more come forth. Two nets now fall on the golem, though one of the elves slips and manages to become himself entangled. The hero strikes again, hitting the same spot, this time forcing the lancetip deep into scratching metal. The golem again rends the nets which bind it. Lap-Laz smacks his lips and tuts, wafting his tail restlessly. The Elder Sister sits cross-legged, straight-backed. The other Gods are watching keenly. "A tactical one," says Ya-Besh. "It has been a while."

The dance goes on. The golem is netted once more, and struck again, this time in the groin, with the sound of crunching metal. Once again he frees himself from his bonds. It looks as though the pattern will repeat itself until the golem's oblivion. But something upsets it. The golem lurches suddenly forward and slams the hero with its fist, sending him staggering back five paces and down to his knees. His ribcage is a ruin and blood bubbles from his lips; not dead, not quite, but thereabouts. He staggers to his feet, leaning on the lance. The last four members of his band net the golem once more and the hero, coughing and spitting red, jabs again with the lance, driving it into the golem's flank. It hurls off its bindings and the hero retreats, surrounded by his band; they have no more nets, and are replaced by the first of the warrior women with her soldiers. She seizes the lance and takes up the charge.

The Gods murmur their approval at the tactic, All except for Lap-Laz, who holds out his hand for the Droll Knave's brandy and pours a glug of it down his throat, and the Elder Sister, who approves of nothing save emotional restraint. 

But the tide of combat can flow and ebb with all the caprice of the sea. Perhaps because she is unused to the lance, or perhaps from sheer misfortune, despite the waves of net attacks from her men the first warrior women cannot find purchase on the iron golem's frame. The jabbing lance continually misses, or scrapes off the golem's armour with shrieks of metal. As the last four of her elves cast their nets ineffectually wide, the golem is free to bring its open palm slapping down upon her skull and almost carelessly cave it in. Her body flops sideways, and pinkish jelly leaks onto the blanket; the Gods laugh appreciatively, and the game is afoot.

The next warrior woman comes forward; her elves lead the golem away from the twitching corpse of her comrade to allow her time to take up the lance. But she is no more effective. The spectators know that the golem lacks the capacity to learn, yet it almost seems as though it now has the beating of the elves' tactic. Once again, the waves of net-throwers eventually fail and give it an opening, and it is able to pound the lance-bearer with a fist, slamming her sideways so that her spine snaps in twain and she lands on the ground some yards away already stone dead. Her men fall back in disorder. 

If the Elder Sister's demeanour remains unchanged, Lap-Laz has somewhat altered. He now swallows pilchards from a pot, curling his tail delightedly about himself. The other Gods are silent. They watch. Here come the last 20 net-armed elves and their leader, who now carries the lance. Three waves of four net-throwers come forward to no avail. But then come another four and the golem is caught. The warrioress lunges and skewers the golem through the belly - the point of the lance passing out through its back. She clings on with both hands. The final four elves come forward to throw, but their nets go astray! The watching Gods are on their feet. The golem almost nonchalantly takes a hold of the warrioress's head and crushes it like an egg.

Pandemonium now among the Gods as the elves regroup. Their net tactic has failed. Now the time has come for steel hearts. They must die for their hero. 

A phalanx is formed. The hero - wounded, maybe dying - once more has the lance. A rank of six elves stands in front of him. Their task is to die but to buy for him enough time to make his attacks from the rank behind. The others crowd in from the rear, ready to take the place of those who fall. They advance on the golem. It dispatches one elf with a simple punch, but the lance is once more singing in the hands of its original owner, and the hero drives the point home. The elves close ranks. Another is bashed to brutal death; the lance once more thrusts home. It is all Lap-Laz can do to stop himself from interfering. He capers about on the edge of the blanket and almost retches up his pilchards; the other Gods edge away; the Elder Sister remains watching in motionless repose. Again the elves close ranks. Again the golem strikes, picking one of his opponents up by the ankle and flinging his victim into the air. Again the lance hits home!

The golem is badly damaged. It sways. Staggers. The elves crowd in. The hero attacks. The point of the lance thrusts in beneath its chin. The Gods leap to their feet. Lap-Laz cannot watch, and hurls a mustard pot at a nearby tree. The golem stiffens and straightens for a moment...wobbles...and slams to the ground and is still. 

Lap-Laz has sunk onto his knees. Whirling around, he fixes his gaze on the Droll Knave. "You!" He shrieks. "Another gourd of brandy is the least you owe me for that trick."

The Skurtch and Ya-Besh come and put their arms around the blue lizard. "You overreached," Yab-Besh tells him. "A little unfairness goes a long way in these matters. You went too far and outraged the conscience of the Gods."

The Elder Sister carefully sets down her shield for her elves to clamber on, bearing their hero aloft. She allows him the briefest of smiles as he looks up at her in worship. Her sea elves advance.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Thoughts on the City-State of the Invincible Overlord (Revised) and the Low Regard for Human Capacities

Are we less intelligent than we were in the 1970s, or do we meet the low expetations we set one another?

Matthew Crawford identifies a trend in modernity to take on a 'low regard for human capacities'. One of the justifications for automation is often that the automated process is better (frequently, but not always, because safer) than the human version. This is readily apparent in the discourse surrounding driverless cars, which always seems to emphasise that human drivers are bad at it, and dangerous. But you see it in a lot of other places as well - a drive (no pun intended) to get machines to do things on our behalf on the basis that they are simply more competent than we are. 

The implication is that this is actually generating a kind of learned helplessness - the more we automate things, the less highly we think of ourselves and our abilities, and the more those abilities atrophy. 

I see this all the time in my day job as an academic. The ability that students and academics alike now have to discover information online has made them a hundred times worse than they used to be at the most basic information-gathering activity of all: reading. We are brilliant at finding resources, deploying the finest automated online tools. But we are terrible at digesting them, because we've got used to just scanning things off a screen while scrolling down, or repeatedly CTRL-Fing for key phrases. We've lost the capacity to read anything which doesn't go out of its way to be readily accessible and fun. 

(The accusation is often made that this problem is overblown, and people have always complained about young people lacking focus, not taking their education seriously, and not being well-read. The answer is that yes, this is true, but the truth of that observation does not falsify the assertion that people are simply now objectively worse than they were at reading than they were in the past. Anybody who doubts this just needs to take a look at old school or university exam papers from the 1970s or 1980s and compare them to those used now.)

But this is probably no more than the observation that, the easier things are made for you, the worse you get at the underlying activity. I have no doubt that the existence of Tinder has made men and women objectively worse at finding and keeping partners, that the existence of TV has made us worse at entertaining ourselves, and that the existence of books has made us worse at memorising information than we were in preliterate times. Japanese friends often tell me that they can now barely write their written language longhand and struggle to remember how to write many of the 2,000 characters one needs to be proficient in the written language; they're used to typing on a computer or mobile phone, which automates the process. 

One is struck instantly by these thoughts as one opens and pages through the City State of the Invincble Overlord. The version I have in my hands at the moment, released in the late '70s, is to the modern eye almost unrelentingly user-unfriendly. There is no introduction of any kind. No effort is made to make the text fun or easy to read. (The first two lines read: "A hereditary monarch and the Senate rule the City State of the Invincible Overlord. There is only a one-third chance per year of a Clanute (Senate) being sumoned by the overlord. The Overlord can overrule any act of the Senate by generally remaining above alignment struggles.") There is no "how to use this book", not even a table of contents. Just a section on 'Background Guidelines', a 'Chronology of the Dragon Kings', a few notes on factions ("BARBARIAN ALTANIS are nomadic tribesmen who roam the lands of their more advanced ancestors. Same as Nomas (Leather Armour) except for every 100 in tribe, 3 Shaman act as sub-commanders..."), and then it's straight into a Key with terse descriptions and one-line rumours. After all this is over, a haphazard collection of tables and mini-rules, presented with stark minimalism:


Serf work a farm owned by a Noble and can't leave freely (must dice as 'Slave').

Villeins pay a rent to their Lord equal to double tax rate on a fixed basis.

Military: Note that a Sergeant commanding 100 Footmen had little more Social Esteem than the Cavalryment (Horses weren't cheap.)

The long and short of it is that the book looks terrible, is hard to read, and is even harder to fathom out how to use. In terms of how it presents its information (what posh people call, I think, "information design"), it could hardly be less aesthetically or stylitically pleasing, or less easy to use. It is inspiring and fascinating once you make the effort. But making the effort is so hard in comparison to, say, Vornheim or other modern RPG city-sandbox supplement of your choice. 

But it was popular, and people did use it, and many of them will have been adolescents (12 years old being, in my experience, the beginning of the optimal period for liking the contents of the City-State). It may simply be the case that there was literally nothing else around, and the book's popularity is explained by that reason alone. But I hardly think that explanation is sufficient: people in the 1970s were willing and able to spend a lot of time reading difficult stuff and figuring out how to use it. Much more than they are now. And they were also more creative. They were able to make do with less. 

To return us to the original point: are modern audiences less intelligent? Or have they just become habituated to RPG supplements going out of their way to be accessible and usable? And what are the consequences of this? Was the 1970s gamer, having high expectations set for him in terms of his ability to read, digest information, and create his own ideas, objectively better? Those questions are of course unanswerable. What we do know is that one simply could not produce City-State of the Invincible Overlord in its 1977 format these days and find success. 

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Doing It For a Living

There are people out there who make a living writing OSR stuff. There aren't many, but they are out there.

Back of the envelope calculations suggest to me that if I quit my job tomorrow I would need to produce a Yoon-Suin about every two months to allow me to live in something approaching "the manner to which I have become accustomed". Admittedly, I deliberately priced Yoon-Suin cheaply, didn't kickstart it, and I think back then the market was also a decent amount smaller than it currently is. Maybe it would be more like every three or four months. But even if I quit my job and just spent all my time doing this, could I make, say, three or four Yoon-Suins a year?

I doubt it.

The important point to be made, though, is that this OSR/DIY D&D/whatever train that we're on seems like it is going to keep chugging along. It has its own momentum now, and I don't really see that stopping. It will never be able to sustain an industry even as big as truly marginal pursuits such as, say, airfix models, poetry, or historical re-enactment. But it has gone on for far too long now to be a flash in the pan. Indeed, it seems now to be entrenched in what you might call a "mature phase", bigger than the personalities involved - too big, as a matter of fact, to realistically keep track of everything that is happening (I gave up years ago), too big for gossip to be serious issue, too big for anybody's opinions in particular to really matter, and too big to just sink without trace.

This has made it actually feasible for somebody to give up a career and make OSR stuff, relatively secure in the knowledge that there will still be people there willing to buy things in 10, 20, even 30 years' time. A lot can change in 30 years, admittedly. But it's already been 13 years since I started blogging. And it's been over 40 years since people have been playing D&D. Maybe in 30 years' time we'll all be being wheeled around in pods drinking 7-Up like in WALL-E. But we'll still be complaining about the UI of roll20 as we do so. 

The world is probably objectively worse now than it was in the 1990s. But one thing that's better is that there is now a realistic career path towards "Making Stuff Up for Role Playing Games" that has a fighting chance at having a long-term future. 

Sunday 9 May 2021

Momentum Has a Quality All of Its Own

Momentum is the most important element in human productivity. They say that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; I think that roughly 99% of perspiration derives from the sheer momentum that comes from bloody-mindedly doing something repetitively and consistently over the course of weeks, months, years, so that it becomes impossible to countenance missing even a single day. 

It's like compound interest. Paying £50 into a savings account will get you nowhere even if it pays a 5% rate. Do it every week for a year and see what happens.

For a long time, I struggled - like, I suppose, everybody - with procrastination. I still procrastinate, of course. But I'm in a position now where it is just a mild source of guilt, rather than a crushing, debilitating disease like it was in my 20s. What made things click was doing a PhD. For about 9 months, I sat down and wrote every single day, because I had to. For the first couple of days, this was difficult. But soon enough it became difficult to imagine not doing it. The habit became ingrained and then it was like riding a wave.

The relentless force of momentum is necessary for completing any project of any worth. You have to get over that initial period of inertia, during which almost literally anything - tidying your desk, cutting your toenails, watching old YouTube clips of Gary Neville ranting about David de Gea's goalkeeping, looking at random articles on Wikipedia - seems more attractive than what it is your are supposed to be doing. But once you're past that, you're in the clear blue sky, and you are flying towards your destination, and almost nothing can bring you plummeting back to earth.

This is also true of exercise, of course, and learning any sort of physical skill; doing 30 push ups one day is pointless unless you are going to do that again and again and again, three or four times a week, and then build up to 40, and 50... Until you start to feel weak and diminished unless you stick to your schedule.

But it's also true of gaming. As a grown adult with a job and family and other responsibilities, it can be very easy to set up a game that gets together only every other week, or once every three weeks, or once a month. And it can then be very easy to miss a session, because Bill has to babysit and Jane has to do a work thing, so that it ends up becoming even less frequent than that. Momentum can dissipate before it even gets started - and the result is then, let's face it, often a shit campaign. People forget things, they lose energy and enthusiasm, and they simply lose that feeling of connection with their characters and what is happening in the game. Things begin to seem attenuated and distant - and then it becomes easy to cancel next week's session, and then the next... In On Writing, Stephen King says that if he is working on a novel he simply has to write it every day; if he misses one day it will not be utterly fatal, but anything more than that and he simply loses the thread. The characters stop seeming real and the emotional connection dissipates. A D&D campaign has something of this quality too; you don't need to play every day, but you need to do it regularly enough to stay in the zone.

What this points to is weekly sessions that you run come hell or high water. This is what I've been doing since February, week in and week out, and it works. And there is time to do it, if you take the thing seriously and stop the ridiculous excuse-making that afflicts all of us: "Sorry guys, I have to cancel this week because..." Run a weekly game for five sessions and the prospect of having to cancel one week starts to feel painful. Run it for 10 sessions and it begins to seem unimaginable. And that's how you reach the sweet spot and can start to really shift up the gears; that's how you reach the promised land of a campaign that generates material of its own; that's how you get really satisfying play. You just have to get the momentum going.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Art Contest and Prize

I run a weekly online BECMI game, now approaching its 20th session. One of the characters, Laren Dar (an Etruscan Fighter played by Patrick S) has amassed quite a collection of accoutrements during his adventures. At the end of today's session, we joked that he is now starting to look like a 5e character.

It then occurred to me: wouldn't it be great to have somebody do his picture?

Then it occurred to me: wouldn't it be great to do this as a competition on the blog, for a special prize?

So, here goes. If you would like to enter the competition, draw a colour picture of Laren Dar (described below) and send it to me at noismsgames {at} protonmail {dot} com. The best entry wins the prize of the complete 1st level of the megadungeon inside a giant tree, mapped and keyed which Laren and his comrades are currently exploring.

Laren Dar is:

An Etruscan fighting man wielding a magical Thracian axe and shield, wearing a wooden helmet shaped like a soldier-ant's head, a wooden breastplate decorated with soldier ant pictographs, a red silk surcoat covered in strange Etruscan lettering in gold, and a cloak made out of falcon feathers. 

Send me your art work by 30th June to claim your reward. 

Sunday 2 May 2021

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (2): Cave Bear and Giant Scorpion

The drawing of the next lots begins. The exercise is almost abandoned when one of the Gods, Knepsham of the Webs, thinks she sees Sleep creeping through the tall cedars on the hill overlooking the feast-grounds. For a moment, the Gods debate returning to the citadel in urgent whispers. But, if Sleep it was, he is not seen again, and they consider it likely that the fresh light of the morning will keep him at bay for a time. They resume.

The next bout is between Knepsham of the Webs herself and The Droll Knave, and the Gods gather once more around the purple blanket, some casting glances behind them lest Sleep reappear. But as the champions are revealed they are soon once more engrossed.

Knepsham slides a delicate hand into a silk pouch and produces from it two cave bears, gigantic, shaggy, ponderous. They lumber onto the purple, nosing the air for prey with their mighty heads swaying left and right, murmuring dark threats in their language of growls. 

The Droll Knave smiles ruefully for a moment, as though apologetic for the victory that he is sure is coming, and sits cross legged on the blanket's edge. He holds up a finger, winks at the audience, and then slides forth his tongue. On it are three armoured, many-legged chitinous things, curled up like pods: giant scorpions, which reveal themselves in slow movement as he takes them by the tail one by one and deposits them on the fighting surface. "Kill," he tells them lovingly as they lurch uncertainly forward; all they seem able to sense is that they long to obey his command.

The bears, intelligent, know they must focus their strength. As the scorpions meander towards them, snapping with their pincers at the air, plagued by their slavery to instinct, the bears isolate one and attack. They are pitiless, powerful. The first bear pounds with its claws, tearing at the scorpion's carapace, staving in the armour, making the soft body underneath leak its noxious fluids. The scorpion reacts with silent desperation, whirling to face its attacker; the other bear snaps at its legs on one side with its jaws, ripping limbs free from their sockets, making the scorpion sag and list to its side. Grievously wounded, the scorpion sinks its pincers into the first bear's hide and they clamp onto its body with relentless strength - but the jabbing tail flails wide. Knepsham of the Webs smiles softly, and meets the Droll Knave's gaze with eyes asparkle. 

But the other two scorpions now feel the tremors of the fight and come forward snapping. One fixes a pincer on the second cave bear and holds it still for impalement on its plunging sting. The poison has no effect and the bear roars its fury. The first bear, however, is not so lucky. The third scorpion jabs with its tail and the bear goes suddenly, horribly still. The poison stops its heart. Its body slumps, falls, rolls onto its side. 

The watching Gods make appreciate chuckles at the rapid reversal. The chuckles turn into laughter as the surviving bear turns on the scorpion which attacked it and simply rends it in two with its claws, casting the halves, still jerking and spasming with the vestiges of life, aside. The bear bellows for its fallen comrade; for a moment, all seems in stasis as the two remaining scorpions, one deranged by the damage it has already suffered, mindlessly turn this way and that. Some of the Gods are standing now, to gain a better view; a solitary voice calls out from their midst, "Is not poison to be a violation of the spirit of the game?" and is silenced.

But the denouement comes quickly, anticlimactically. The scorpions finally seize upon the second bear and it is cut, torn, lanced by stings; the poison ends the contest and the Droll Knave is the victor. 

He nods to Knepsham, winks. "Bad fortune. That could have gone either way" 

The Goddess of the Webs stands. "I like you better as a braggart."

The Droll Knave laughs. His scorpions advance to the next stage of the contest.