Monday 30 August 2021

Name That Subculture: The Extreme Lower Middle Class RPG/Wargame/Metal Matrix

I recently said to somebody that my background is the absolute bottom of the middle-class. My grandfathers were both factory workers; my parents both grew up in council houses (that is, public housing) in rough areas and basically had nothing. But the booming economy of the 1960s and the benefits of free education managed to get them both low-level office jobs. They were the first people in either of their families' histories to be able to buy a house. I was the first person in my family to go to university. So, we were not exactly poverty-stricken, but we had little, and my parents had known real deprivation; yet on the other hand we were on the cusp of something resembling better. 

I say this not to identify myself as special - rather the opposite. In my school, basically everybody was in this category, except for those kids from the wrong side of the tracks who were really in what you would have to call the underclass, and the occasional child of a doctor or dentist or whatever. In England during the period 1975-1995, my class of people formed a vast mob, millions strong; people who 100 years previously would have been living in absolute penury as a kind of industrial lumpenproleteriat, but who rising living standards had elevated to a position, a century later, of having some leisure time, some pocket money, some cultural activities to participate in.

For those of us within that class who were naturally bookish, "sensitive", intelligent, and interested in creative pursuits, though, there wasn't a huge amount on offer. There were museums and libraries. But our family backgrounds and educations gave us little to draw from. Posh kids of our type presumably got their stimulation from reading classics at school, having thousands of books (the right kind of books) around the house, fabulous dinner parties with sparkling conversation every weekend, and so on. Those possibilities were closed to us even if we had known about them. Our personalities had to find their expression somehow, but they had to find it elsewhere.

Where they ended up discovering it was in heavy metal; in plastic military models; in SF/horror/fantasy books and films; in Games Workshop; and in D&D. These different phenomena formed a unique cultural space, very male (there's no getting away from that), very creative, very self-referential, and always aware that it stood adjacent to and aloof from both the mainstream culture of our peers (football, club/dance music, cars) and the highbrow culture of posh people (rugby, theatre, politics, wine, contemporary literature). It was a world of big brothers wearing leather jackets and Iron Maiden t-shirts; games shops full of Rifts books; music shops full of Cannibal Corpse records; groups of teenage boys hanging out in living rooms playing 40K and listening to Metallica; bedrooms stacked high with shelves covered in Airfix Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and T-34 tanks, Warhammer skeletons, and space marines. It was a world of bad BO, broken adolescent voices, acne and Doc Martens. Of constant (often violent) disputes with those we called "trendies" and constant awareness of not quite fitting in. I don't know what the word for this phenomenon was, but it fed on the bad mojo, awkwardness and imaginative genius of pubescent males who haven't got a lot going on and haven't got a clue how to talk to girls. And it powered D&D and Games Workshop for decades until those brands both decided that it was all just a bit too embarrassing and needed to be jettisoned. 

What is the word for that particular subculture? You still catch glimpses of it, here and there, but the conditions which created it no longer seem to apply to the extent they once did. The physical spaces which sustained it - game shops, record shops, wargame clubs - are mostly gone, and so are many of the cultural habits on which it relied. When I was 13 or14, after school finished at 3.30 you had nothing to do until the next day, and little parental supervision - we walked to and from school and often spent hours getting from A to B. Sometimes this meant ending up in a field somewhere playing football (I was unusual in having a foot - no pun intended - in that world), but even more often, it meant going to your mate's house to play Warhammer or D&D. That practice of kids being free to pop in and out of each other's houses unsupervised, to roam about, to hang around in shops of their own accord, to wander the streets after school, has not entirely gone, but it is drastically reduced, and the social opportunities diminished with it. More than that, though, that class which I was part of seems to have bifurcated, with half going on to join the middle-classes proper, and half sinking into a darkier, nastier, poorer set of social circumstances. Exploring the roots of that and its effects is beyond the remit of this blog post, but I can at least put a name to what once existed and which now remains only in fragments: the Extreme Lower Middle Class RPG/Wargame/Metal Matrix is a bit of a mouthful, but seems to capture it; maybe "Playing D&D in an Iron Maiden t-shirt with your older brother and his mates" is more pithy and illustrative of what it all really meant.

Friday 27 August 2021

What Is Maleficent Up To?

In Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent curses the newborn Aurora: before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.

But, for some reason, having issued the curse, Maleficent turns out to lack all confidence in its power. She apparently spends the next 15 years trying to find Aurora after the good fairies hide her away in the forest, and then, having done so on the eve of the girl's 16th birthday, makes strenuous efforts to appear, with a spinning wheel, in order to force Aurora to touch the needle.

This appears not to be a curse at all, in fact; it is more like a declaration of intent. (And a bizarre one at that: why doesn't she just turn up at the end and kill Aurora outright, given that she knows that Merryweather has cast a partial dispellation of the curse?)

But perhaps this is what a curse really is: not a statement of intent, per se, but a spell which binds both the cursed and the curser to perform a particular sequence of actions through to a desired end. Aurora will encounter a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday, but Maleficent must play her own role in ensuring this in fact transpires. A curse, seen in this way, is something like a willed destiny - a final destination that will come about if only the one issuing the curse makes sure that it does. 

An even more accurate way of putting it is: a curse is a stated plan which will come about if the right actions are performed at the right time. Ordinary plans, no matter how perfect, go wrong because of bad luck. A curse will not (barring interference from fairy godmothers) as long as the curser holds up at his end

This makes fairy tale curses (as opposed to "you lose half your STR for the duration of the curse"-style D&D affairs) potentially, and interestingly, gameable. Magic-users can cast curses, and specify an outcome in doing so, but they also have to specify the steps they need to take to ensure that the outcome becomes real. If they do, the curse is realised. If they fail - too bad, and perhaps additional horrible consequences which follow. Maleficent meets her end having been impaled on a thrown sword. I'm sure that more interesting possibilities could suggest themselves. 

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Asking "What Then?", or, What Makes a Good Setting Good?

Let's subvert Tolstoy: all bad settings are all alike, but all good settings are good in their own way. 

What makes for a bad fantasy setting? In my view, a lot of it can be put down to coming up with decent ideas, but failing to follow through on them by asking the critical question (or series of questions): "What then?"

For example: "In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists." A concept you can work with, but which on its own is boring. But ask, "What then?" and things become interesting. In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists, so what then? Well:

  • They presumably have to defend themselves still, so maybe they build huge walls, miles high, around their cities. Or maybe they live in towns made on stilts in the middle of inaccessible lakes. Or maybe they make huge armies of protective golems who physically sacrifice themselves in order to foil attacks. Or...
  • They are still people, so sometimes they will want or need to hurt or kill each other. How do they achieve this? Maybe they are expert poisoners and come up with thousands of variants, renowned across the world. Maybe they create loopholes in the rules and there are guilds of lawyer-assassins who are paid vast sums to come up with new ones. Maybe they contrive ways to commit violence against each other in absolute secrecy. Maybe they hire outsiders, not bound by the rules, to do their dirty work for them. Maybe...
  • 'Nonviolent' might exclude the killing of any living thing. So what do these people live on? Where do they get their protein? Perhaps they raise giant mushrooms. Perhaps they eat their own dead in elaborate rituals. Perhaps they are like the Masai and keep cattle (or, let's get creative, and make it giant beetles/iguanas/alpacas/swans) whose blood they drink. 

What you'll notice is that all of these ideas then lead on to further "What then?" questions. The nonviolent pacifists eat their own dead. So what then? Well, what do you do if you're in need of protein? Find somebody who is dying and wait patiently by their bedside. Maybe if somebody is dying everybody in the local villages comes rushing to argue over the body. Maybe peoples' corpses are subject to elaborate legal dispute, resolved by nonviolent contests or rituals. Maybe people leave different body parts to different people in their wills. Maybe there is a black market in body parts. Maybe outsiders, who are not bound by the rules, hunt and kill members of this society in secret to sell their flesh. And so on.

The classic example, for me, of the failure to really follow through on decent ideas is Planescape. All of the Planescape Outer Planes are based on interesting concepts. Bytopia has one layer on top of the other one, facing it, like an upside down mirror! The Beastlands is inhabited only by intelligent animals! Carceri is an infinite prison! Acheron is an infinite battlefield! Arcadia is the land of cloying, restrictive benevolence! And so on. But none of the designers ever really then stopped to think: "Ok, so - what then?" Er, well, it's just like D&D always is, but isn't the background idea neat

At the opposite end of the sphere is Jack Vance, the master at coming up with initially bland-sounding ideas and then burrowing so deep inside them that they become unique and powerful. (The Face is probably the classic example of this, in which he takes the concept of 'desert planet' and transforms into something altogether wonderful.) Frank Herbert's Dune (while we are on the subject of desert planets), is another such example: you have to use a particular substance in order to perform interstellar travel. "Ok, what then?" Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: people colonise Mars. What then? And one must not forget, of course, The Left Hand of Darkness. There's a planet of ambisexuals - what then? 

If you want to come up with an interesting setting or an interesting concept to use in a setting, you can do a lot worse than flicking through the Monster Manual and applying this technique. "There are gargantuan birds, called rocs, in this setting. What then?" "There are lycanthropes in this setting. What then?" "This world has deadly puddings. What then?" The results write themselves. (It can also be done by flicking through the spells. "In this setting, people can go invisible/create fire/create illusions/charm each other with magic. What then?")

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Fliers in the Unremembered City

In the time of the Old Naacals the great plazas of the Unremembered City thronged with flying devices. They left in great flocks like birds with the the dawn, bearing their noble owners aloft to distant places and returning with the dusk to roost. Now there are few. Nobody remembers how to construct them, and with each accident or loss their number dwindles. But at least a handful remain in each of the plazas. They cannot be bought, because custom forbids it, but many are leased by their owners for reasonable prices. Most of these antique fliers retain at least some of the technical marvels - the armaments, tools and other apparatus - which they were created, but as with all of the servitors of the Old Naacals, time has rendered them eccentric and strange. These last of their breed are of great power, but they are not to be trusted.

The PCs' plaza will have d3+3 fliers available at the start of the campaign. Generate them as follows:

Size: Each flier has d6+3 HD and AC of 2d4.

Motif: Fliers were traditionally designed with animal motifs. Roll 1d10: 1 - Baboon, 2 - Jackal, 3 - Jaguar, 4 - Tapir, 5 - Falcon, 6 - Ibis, 7 - Gazelle, 8 - Cobra, 9 - Quetzal, 10 - Black Howler Monkey

Colours: Fliers were gaudily painted, though the colours of most have faded with the eons. Roll 1d4 to determine the pattern: 1 - Solid, 2 - Solid with trim, 3 - Striped, 4 - Spotted. Then determine the colours with 1d10 rolls (once if the pattern is solid, or twice otherwise): 1 - Red, 2 - Yellow, 3 - Blue, 4 - Green, 5 - Purple, 6 - Orange, 7 - White, 8 - Black, 9 - Gold, 10 - Silver

Type: Fliers typically prioritise two out of the three traditional qualities of manoeuvrability, speed and carrying capacity. Roll 1d3 to determine the flier's main quality (1 - Manoeuvrability, 2 - Speed, 3 - Carrying capacity). Then roll 1d2 to determine its secondary quality from the two options remaining. The remaining quality is its tertiary one.


Primary: flier is Class A

Secondary: flier is Class C

Tertiary: flier is Class E


Primary: flier has speed 36

Secondary: flier has speed 24

Tertiary: flier has speed 12

Carrying Capacity

Primary: flier carries 7,500 cn per HD (including crew)

Secondary: flier carries 5,000 cn per HD (including crew)

Tertiary: flier carries 2,500 cn per HD (including crew)

Abilities: It is thought that the fliers of the Unremembered City could each in the time of the Old Naacals perform many technological wonders. Now, generally, they remember how to do one. Roll 1d8 to determine which it is: 1 - Sea plane (can land on oceans, lakes and rivers), 2 - Can perform minor teleportation, identical to the blink spell, when in flight, 3/day, 3 - Can create a wall of fog 3/day, 4 - Can heal the wounds of living things stored in its hold (recover hp as a cure light wounds spell for each day spent in the hold), 5 - Has a quantum hold which can store twice its apparent capacity, 6 - Has a cloaking device which performs identically to the invisibility spell, usable for up to 1 hour per day before having to be recharged by the sun, 7 - Has a primitive radar, allowing it to detect other craft (PCs are never surprised and always win initiative in air battles - unless the other craft has a similar device), 8 - Can communicate with other fliers and charm them (as the charm person spell) 1/day

Eccentricity: The fliers of the Unremembered City have been rendered senile and confused by the passage of time. Roll to determine how each flier is affected by cognitive decay: 1 - The flier is irascible and needs persuading to perform its ability and deploy armaments (usually with gold fed into a slot or compartment, but the DM may think of other forms of persuasion), 2 - The flier is aggressive and has a 1 in 3 chance of attacking other fliers encountered, 3 - The flier is cowardly and has a 1 in 6 chance of fleeing combat each round, 4 - The flier is unstable and given to falling into bouts of depression; on any given flight there is a 1 in 10 chance it refuses to take off and remains grounded for the rest of the day, 5 - The flier's capacity for short term memory cannot be trusted; there is a 1 in 6 chance it will fly 1d6 hexes in a random direction if left alone (place it in the nearest land hex if this means it would end up in water), 6 - The flier easily becomes lonely and has a 1 in 6 chance of pursuing other fliers sighted to their destinations, 7 - The flier is unstable and has a 1 in 10 chance of grounding itself for the rest of the day whenever it enters a new hex, 8 - The flier is bloodthirsty and megalomaniacal and will only take flight if a living thing is sacrificed to it

Armaments: Each flier has two armaments from the following list: 1 - Kinetic bolt, 2 - Gas cloud, 3 - Webs, 4 - Razor discs, 5 - Obsidian shard cloud, 6 - Blue burst, 7 - Magma drop, 8 - Birds of light

Thursday 19 August 2021

[Review] Punth: A Primer

Imagine Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe got together and wrote a fantasy setting inspired by ancient Sumer or Assyria, but somehow managed to do so in the 1920s. And imagine that they had done this with the foreknowledge of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Shaka, When the Walls Fell". Then imagine that Jorge Luis Borges edited what they had done and added some of his own thoughts. Then imagine they gave it to Edgar Rice Burroughs to write a series of novels set there.

Now imagine that scholars in the 1930s came across these novels and decided that the place had actually been real, and wrote an introductory textbook to it. This is Punth: A Primer, among the best and most interesting fantasy settings produced by the OSR and the spiderlings spewed out from the thorax of its bloated corpse. 

Punth approaches Tekumel, not in substance (although there is something of Tekumel's alien coldness in it), but in ambition. This is not a typical fantasy setting. It is an exploration of themes: the control of thought through language, the formation of state power, and the philosophy of law. If that sounds like a bit much, it is a cool ancient Near Eastern sandbox setting ruled by dictatorial multi-limbed aliens written by somebody who has really though things through. And it's a marvel of succinct, concentrated. distilled communication to boot. Check out the introduction, which (if you are anything like me) ought to be like catnip to you:

PUNTH! The sun sets. Birds perch on the upper levels of the local ziggurat. Labourers at the communal dinner, fresh from the field, hear the rhythmic formulation of the Codes sung to the tune of the dulcimer and the tom-tom. 
PUNTH! At noon, gaze across the irrigation ditches, out into the wilderness, where a great Prince impales a lion on a twelve cubit spear! 
PUNTH! Square cities by the bending river. Gene-mod oxen pull the ploughs. Sentinels with khaki fatigues and long spears. Goatherds gather their flocks into elevated shelters for fear of carnivorous leaping lizards. 
PUNTH! Sun-baked vaults of a fallen tower! Cracked lands of fallen tyrants and descending conquerers! Howling eidolons in trackless deserts! 
PUNTH! Aristocratic republic of former sky-sailors! Long paved roads dividing a howling desert. Psycho-drill schools engaged in mass call-and-repeat lessons in the baking sun. Gendarme patrols, regular as clockwork. Polychrome pillars and glazed bricks. Long-necked herbivores pulling carts; six-legged steeds for the Sky Princes. 
PUNTH! Where all speech is couched in the words of the Codes. Where the scribes records details of the latest five-year plan on clay tablets beneath the eyes of watchful green four-armed aristo-commisars! PUNTH! The land set out before you.

Could I run a game set in Punth? I'm not sure, but reading it fills me with inspiration in a way very few OSR products do. Nobody has written anything like this. It's great. 

And it's PWYW, and only 46 pages long. I'd buy it if I were you.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

D&D Can Help

I'm not sure how much of a splash it made outside the UK, but last week a so-called 'incel' went on a shooting spree in Plymouth, killing 5 people including a 3 year old girl before ending his own life. It's a desperately sad story, as these things always of course are, made somehow worse by the fact that the news media can pore over the perpetrator's YouTube rants and reddit posts in lurid detail - you could watch his last video blog on most national news websites practically before his body was cold. Ghoulishness has taken on a whole new life in the Web 2.0 era (no pun intended). 

A lot of media attention has focused on the question of whether some or all incels, or at least incidents like this, should be treated as being 'terrorist', and to what extent there needs to be a crackdown on these online groups' 'violence and misogyny'. A few people have pointed out that the truth, both about Jake Davison and incels in general, is much more complicated. What's depressing is that, like almost everything else now, this has become politicised: to those on the left, this is an example of right-wing extremism fuelled by cuts to social services. To those on the right, this is an example of how privileging the status of 'victims' is driving even white men to define themselves against the perceived oppressiveness of social structure. Nobody really seems all that interested in understanding what is going wrong and, more importantly, how to fix it. It's all about the posture one adopts within one's own political subculture.

The main root of the issue seems to me that there is a fundamental problem, which all societies face, concerning how young men are socialised. This is why any traditional society one can name tends to have explicit or implicit rites of passage for adolescent boys, and robust male-bonding exercises. To put it bluntly, aggression, disagreeableness and indiscipline are traits that are much more common in young men than young women (no, not all men, do I even have to say it?) and societies all around the world have evolved methods of coping with that. 

These methods tend to involve the influence of older men - fathers, uncles, older brothers, teachers, 'elders', etc. - who are there to physically and/or metaphorically give the individual young man the necessary clips around the ear so that he eventually grows up into an actual man rather than an overgrown child. Many people reading this will be sniggering about this outmoded, ill-informed, antiquated 1950s nonsense, I'm sure; all I can say is that it's informed by years of working as an educator, years of working with teenage boys doing martial arts, and years of being an actual teenage boy surrounded by lots of other teenage boys in a rough state school. If it doesn't chime with your view of reality - well, I'm not going to convince you of anything, so you might as well stop reading.

The summary: young lads have a tendency to go off the rails when they haven't been properly socialised (again, not all, but more so than girls), and it's incumbent therefore on sensible older men that they try to properly socialise younger ones. Women can of course play a role in that as well, but just as girls tend to respond better to female role models, boys tend to respond better to male ones. 

Is the solution to people like Jake Davison 'play D&D'? No, it isn't that simple. But, if I look back to the pre-internet days, when I was a teenager, it is evident to me that a fair few of my peers could easily have been putative Jake Davisons if they happened to have been born 25 years later. There were plenty of lads in my school or among my peer group with bad social skills, bad hair, bad acne, bad clothes and bad attitudes. Lads who no girl in her right mind would want to even look at, let alone talk to. Let's face it: teenage boys are pretty grotesque, and some are very grotesque indeed. Left to their own devices, there are plenty of teenage boys I used to know who could easily have ended up getting 'blackpilled' on reddit if it had existed at the time. 

But back then they weren't left to their own devices, because sitting in your room by yourself at home every day simply wasn't a viable option, unless you were really dedicated to walking the asocial road. No: you got into heavy metal and went to the local 'rock night' every Wednesday at the Queen Vic. Or you did judo. Or took up amateur dramatics. Or got heavily into the Scouts. Or went to church. Or went to the local youth club. Or joined a bowling team. Or tried to get good at cricket, rugby or football. Or, you played D&D or wargames at Games Workshop.

The point about this was not that getting involved in these kinds of hobbies put you in touch with girls (although that was often your aim, and a side-benefit). Rather, it put you in touch with other, often older, men - youth workers, your friends' older brothers, karate instructors, guys who were in bands, whatever. And these older men would tell you: get a fucking hair cut. Stop staring at that girl and creeping her out. Take a shower. Get a job and stop sponging. Was their advice perfect, or always sensible? No, but at least it was something. And you were infinitely more likely to listen to these people than your mother, who you probably hadn't had an actual conversation with for several years beyond 'Where are you going?' 'Out.' 

It would be crass and reductionist to say that having a regular face to face D&D group would have stopped  Jack Davison murdering people. I didn't know the man from Adam after all. But having that sort of hobby is part of the necessary social fabric which prevents many such people living the kind of atomised, unsituated, disconnected lives that drive them slowly mad and hateful. That fabric is fraying, but it can be mended if enough people want to try, and involvement in hobbies (real hobbies, done with real people, in the real world) is a bigger part of it than people think.

Monday 16 August 2021

Video Interview with Patrick Stuart of False Machine

I did an interview with Patrick Stuart about, well, Labyrinth, Warhammer 40K, the OSR, the Wirral, and various other rambling weird things. I hope you like it. Patrick and I are old friends, so it may be completely incomprehensible to people who are not us. But nevertheless!

(Here is the link if you have trouble making the video work:

Friday 13 August 2021

Undead Dinosaur Generator

When the dinosaurs met their end, the crocodile bore witness. In those years of fire, ash and shadow, when the earth trembled and quivered beneath the dust-shrouded sun, their stricken undead souls wandered, and the crocodile watched them as it watches all. Now so many eons have passed that time itself has caused even those lost pilgrim spirits to fade to nothing, the way old spider webs are breezed away by the wind. But the crocodile still remembers them. 

Undead dinosaurs are a combination of a base type and an undead nature. Roll on the following table, or choose.


Wednesday 11 August 2021

Keeping it Honest: Why Dice Matter

Yesterday was 'A' level results day in England. 'A' levels (the 'A' is short for 'Advanced') are national exams taken at age 17 or 18, the results of which being those which universities look at when deciding whether to offer prospective students places. 'A' level results day is traditionally a big event each year - the opportunity for newspaper editors to publish lots of photographs of attractive young women jumping about excitedly at their results, and for newspaper columnists to complain about how the exams are getting easier and grades are becoming inflated.

The grade inflation narrative has been put on steroids this year, because owing to the lockdowns and school closures, there were no actual exams this year - instead, teachers awarded their students' results based on their 'predicted grades'. It turns out that asking teachers what grades their students should get is a bit like asking Nike whether its trainers are any good, or asking a Haagen Dazs spokesman if he thinks his company makes nice ice cream. Teachers - who would have thought it? - are of the opinion that they do a grand job and their students are all set to perform fabulously well. This year, over half of all 'A' level grades were either A or A*, the two highest grade boundaries. 

It is a scandal, of course - and one that should be much bigger than it actually is. But it tells us a lot about human beings. When you don't have some kind of neutral mechanism devised to keep people honest, they generally end up behaving dishonestly. 

In the case of 'A' levels, that neutral mechanism is the paper exam, externally marked (i.e., anonymously, by markers completely unconnected to the school at which the pupil is studying). An external marker has no skin in the game - it doesn't matter to him or her whether a particular student does well. So his mark is broadly trustworthy. Essentially the opposite is true of teachers marking their own students' work. If students get excellent grades it makes the teacher look good. It's not rocket science to see in which direction the incentives point.

In RPGs, the neutral mechanism in question is generally the dice. The dice, rolled openly so everyone can see the results, keeps everybody - particularly the DM - honest. If they go away, the DM follows his or her own predilections. Being nice to his best friend/girlfriend/person he secretly fancies. Making life awkward for the player he dislikes. Pursuing his own view on what the campaign's 'story' should be. Trying to expedite a scene so he can get the session finished and go to the pub. We're all familiar with those pushes and pulls. To guard against them influencing affairs at the table, we look to the dice - again, rolled openly -  which are always unfailingly truthful. And thus we trust what is happening at the table.

Some people reading this will now, I predict, be thinking to themselves: "That's what he says. Whenever I play my games with my wonderful friends, we are all unfailingly honest and work in each other's interests so that we all enjoy the game equally, because we are such fabulous people." To which I can only respond: if it makes you feel better to think of things that way, go ahead and maintain the fantasy. 

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws Will Happen (Very Basic Overview)

I have a sizeable backlog of releases that will all come out in a great orgasmic flow within the next year or two. After them will come Behind Gently Smiling Jaws

This project has been through many iterations and has occupied my mind for countless hours of daydreaming. I have now thrashed it into shape in my own mental workshop like a panel beater, and I think I have something that is now flat and malleable and ready to be shaped.

The basic concept is:

  • The Naacals inhabited the continent of Mu, which spanned the globe from the Yucatan, across the Pacific and Indochina to Egypt. They are a mixture of ancient Maya and Egyptian influences.
  • There was a cataclysm. Most Naacals perished as Mu sank. But some found a way to save themselves by inserting themselves into the memory palace of an ancient, immortal crocodile, where they built their own dwelling-place, the Unremembered City.
  • They weren't the only ones: over the eons, seven other outsiders also managed this feat (some before the Naacals, some after) and created their own realms inside the crocodile's dreams.
  • The Apocalypse came when everything in the crocodile's memory palace, Unremembered City included, spilled out into the real world. Suddenly, everything the crocodile had remembered and dreamed about for 200 million years or more - dinosaurs, sea monsters, Atlantis, underwater aliens, primitive hominids, etc. - were running amok and civilization collapsed across the globe.
  • Worse, the seven realms which the seven intruders had created within the crocodile's dreams also came out - but broken and fragmented into many 'shards', which manifested themselves at random around the world. 
  • There are now few humans left, and those that remain have had their sanity blasted. The rest of the world is roamed by what came out of the crocodile's mind, or exists as impossibly incongruous 'shards' of dream terrain. 
  • The Naacals are now recolonising the shattered Earth. 

Simple, right?

Anyway, in a sense all of that is irrelevant. Basically, the campaign setting is like Gamma World, except the apocalypse wasn't a nuclear explosion but a CROCODILE MEMORY BOMB. The PCs are Naacals; they adventure in our world, but one rendered forever strange by the intrusion of many things which should not be - the dimly remembered artefacts of the world's own ancient past, mixed with the influences of seven very charismatic but psychically disturbed interlopers. 

Hence, creating a campaign map will involve mapping out an area of the world which you personally know well (in my example case here, the Wirral peninsula and its surroundings):

And then procedurally inserting shards of weird dream terrain into it, together with their memory-contents (dinosaurs, sea creatures, early hominids, etc.):

And then: adventure!

Tuesday 10 August 2021

To Fudge or Not to Fudge

Cavegirl discusses fudging in a recent post. This is a topic about which I used to have very strong opinions (see here and here). As is often the case, though, age has somewhat mellowed me. I stand by my earlier position, which can roughly be summarised as:

  • If you are going to consistently fudge dice, why not just play a diceless game?
  • Fudging is usually a bad idea, because the players will notice and lose faith in the game, unless you are a really good actor (and even then they will probably notice if it means they always miraculously survive, or the DM's best mate gets oddly good outcomes all the time)

But I would now add the additional layer:

  • If the dice roll does not pertain to something happening within the fiction, but is determinative of the structure of the fiction, fudging is permissible where it is done to avoid repetitive or absurd results

To expand, a dice roll is within the fiction if it involves some action actually taking place within the game world itself - something a PC or NPC/monster is doing or having done to them. Combat rolls, saving throws, ability checks, and so on should never be fudged. 

A dice roll which is structural is one which determines the overall frame within which things happen: random encounter results, random treasure rolls, and the type of dice rolling you would do during campaign setup if using e.g. Yoon-Suin or similar. There, a little fudging is probably harmless, particularly if done to avoid yet another encounter with goblins, random treasure horde containing only jewellery, and so on. 

It is important to make clear that random encounter checks are to be distinguished here from random encounter results. Whether a random encounter occurs (that is, the check itself) should never in my view be fudged - it is something happening within the fiction. The result you roll on the table (that is, the monster which appears) is something which I think it can sometimes be reasonable to fudge to avoid repetition or boredom, or a weird situation that will just take too much of your mental bandwidth to process in the heat of the moment.

Put a different way, there are certain rolls which I think of as player facing (and hence not fudgible) and some which are non-player facing. Player-facing rolls are always done in the open and include:

  • Rolls to hit and damage
  • Saving throws for monsters and NPCs
  • Surprise rolls for monsters
  • Random encounter checks (I often forget to do these openly in practice, but I should remember)
  • Reaction dice
  • Initiative rolls for monsters and NPCs

Non-player facing dice rolls are primarily those done away from the table between sessions, but do include:

  • Random encounter results
  • Random treasure generation
  • Number of monsters encountered

Rolling dice in the open and committing to not fudging can be very harsh, but through long experience I've just arrived at the position that it is more fun for me that way; actions need to have consequences or it all just feels too much like, well, a bunch of grown-ups playing make-believe.

Monday 9 August 2021

Boosting Signals

Two members of my weekly gaming group have released their etchings on t'internet, and thus they get the Monsters & Manuals hype machine treatment:

  • Dan Sumption has made In My End is My Beginning, which is apparently a quote by Mary, Queen of Scots but sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins song title. It's a PWYW story game about death. 
  • Patrick Stuart has started a Kickstarter for Demon Bone Sarcophagus, the first in a series of three volumes of Broken Fire Regime. I expect you have heard about it already, because I think the Venn Diagram of readers of False Machine and Monsters & Manuals probably resembles Giotto's O. But nonetheless. 

Also, I have made it my mission in life to get Patrick to make Lanthanum Chromate and to pester him relentlessly about it until he does, so I would also appreciate it if you go to his blog and plague him in the comments as well  - k thx bye.

Tuesday 3 August 2021

New Release: The Fixed World, Volume I - Dawn-in-Winter

Long-time readers of the blog will be familiar with The Fixed World, my 'D&D turned to 11' setting, which is an entire world lying motionless beneath its sun - so that where it is winter, it is always winter, and where it is dawn, it is always dawn (and so on).

Well, I am going to release it, volume by volume, after having decided it was just too big to do in one book. The first volume, Dawn-in-Winter is now available in PDF at the Noisms Games website for purchase, for the princely sum of £2.

From the blurb:

This is the first of a multi-volume series. Each volume contains information on a portion of the Fixed World, maps, mini-bestiaries, guidance on creating PCs, and tables helping you generate contents to run many entire campaigns of your own. This volume covers Dawn-in-Winter, where it is always dawn and always winter. In it are: 

  • Ettercap queendoms made of silk 
  • Horseshoe-crab polities on frigid shores 
  • Nomadic troll kings with bariaur servants
  • Peripatetic heath elves roaming from tower to tower on barren hilltops
  • Were-raven baronies in dank, dark forests
  • Glaciers with grimlock cities
  • And more besides 

This is a ‘no frills’ product of 45 pages, almost all of which are text, and with 8 maps. It was all produced and laid out by the author.

That's right, I tried my hand at layout, and the main design principle is 'no art is better than bad art'. 

If you would like a preview, most of the text is available on this post, unformatted. The published version includes maps, better formatting, additional tables and flavour text, and some rules tweaks.

Please feel free to buy if you like the idea, and spread the word accordingly.