Friday, 29 October 2021



Loathsome, bellicose insectoids, as bloody-minded and difficult to kill as their diminutive colleagues, earwigmen rove in matriarchal warbands, each band worshipping a malevolent god of its own.

Male: HD 1+1, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6 (short sword, hand axe, spear) +1, Move 120, ML 8

Female: HD 2+1, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG 1d6 (short sword, hand axe, spear) +2/1d3 (pincer), Move 120, ML 9
*The pincer attack will latch on after a successful hit, doing 1d3 hp damage automatically each round thereafter
*Regenerates 1hp per round unless killed outright

Matriarch: HD 3+3, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG 1d8 (long sword, battle axe)+2/1d4 (pincer), Move 120, ML 10
*The pincer attack will latch on after a successful hit, doing 1d4 hp damage automatically each round thereafter
*Regenerates 3hp per round unless killed outright

Earwigmen are encountered in groups of 3-18 (of which 1 in 4 are females) or in lairs of 55-100 (of which  1 in 4 are females and one is a matriarch; three other females are 2nd level magic-users). 

A group of earwigmen has a 1 in 3 chance of being accompanied by a giant earwig; a lair will include 1d6+3 of them.

Giant earwig: HD 4+4, AC 4, #ATT 2, DMG 1d6+2 (pincers)/1d6 (bite), Move 180, ML 9
*The pincer attack will latch on after a successful hit, doing 1d6+2 damage automatically each round thereafter
*Regenerates 3hp per round unless killed outright

[SIGNAL BOOST: My friend and sort-of neighbour Dan has a kickstarter that might be relevant to your interests:]

Thursday, 28 October 2021

No Take-Backs?

As I get older, I become less interested in coming across as an infallible DM. If I was flattering myself I would say this is because I have become more secure; if I was being more realistic I might admit that I just give less of a shit than I used to about most things, as is true for all of us once we hit 40. 

This means my approach to gaming has become much more relaxed over time. I don't mind "breaking the fourth wall" where required. If I've made a mistake I'll usually own up to it. If I'm not sure what a rule is, I'll often ask the players. If I've forgotten something, I'll have them remind me. We're just playing a game; I'm not the pope.

(This mirrors what I've found after years of working in education. Young teachers, lecturers, assistant professors and so on will spout all manner of convoluted nonsense, and become red-faced and flustered in the process, in order to avoid admitting they don't know the answer to a student's query. Experienced hands are happy to say, "I don't know, but I'll look it up for next time." [If they're really boxing clever, they'll say, "I don't know, and your homework is to go away and see if you can get the answer for next week's class."]) 

The question of take-backs, though, is one I find tricky. The latest excellent post on Against the Wicked City is about those game-ruining powers of which the PCs can sometimes fall into possession: things like at-will high-speed flight, non-corporeality, mind control, and so on. Is it ever legitimate for a DM to say to the players: "This power you now have is ruining the game by making everything too easy and I should never have made it possible to have it. Let's say that tomorrow you wake up and it mysteriously no longer works"? 

This question is somewhat apropos. In my weekly campaign, the PCs have managed to get their hands on a limited form of telepathic communication (complicated because of the involvement of a third party), that almost functions like a radio operable up to infinite distance. Not apparently game-ruinous yet, but one can envisage it having such an effect. I was grateful to the players that they said, as soon as it became obvious that the strange combination of NPC allies and items that had come into their possession suddenly made an infinite walkie-talkie power possible, that they were happy for this power to somehow be revoked if it proved game-ruinous. But what if they hadn't?

I am a big proponent of giving the players agency. But at what point does agency end? At what point does it become legitimate to say, "The demigod of storms has risen in the East and now nobody can fly at will any more"? 

Monday, 25 October 2021

On Emphyrio and Vance's Libertarianism

Emphyrio is one of Vance’s most accomplished novels. It is also the closest we get to what one suspects is his personal philosophy. He had too much good taste to write allegory, but in Emphyrio he does delve into themes of political anthropology more deeply, interestingly and openly than in any other of his books.
The main setting of Emphyrio is the city of Ambroy, a metropolis half-ruined by ancient wars, and now ruled by families of Lords who, it is said, rebuilt its society in the aftermath of these disasters. Inhabiting towers known as “eeries” and collecting a 1.18% tithe on the products of Ambroy’s citizens (on which more below), these Lords occasionally descend to mingle with the hoi polloi, accompanied everywhere by ape-like guards known as Garrion. Otherwise they live an almost-literal “ivory tower” existence, punctuated only by trips across the stars in their space yachts.
The setting, then, is a curious mixture of the medieval and the futuristic. Ostensibly part of Vance’s wider Gaean Reach universe, it has nothing like the mood or feeling of a Demon Princes or Cadwal novel; the people of Ambroy inhabit if anything a world more akin to Viriconium or Nessus (and, indeed, the novel is suffused with the same kind of mood as the Viriconium and Book of the New Sun stories throughout). Their city bears some of the trappings of ancient technologies that, it is implied, are too advanced for the current inhabitants to understand (the “Overtrend”, a kind of monorail; the “Spay”, a telecommunications tool); otherwise they live like the people of pre-enlightenment Amsterdam or London, dreaming of becoming like the Lords and travelling across the stars.
This, though, is in practical terms impossible, because the people are kept in feudal drudgery by a system of smothering regulations administered by an almighty Welfare Agency, which has taken over the entire apparatus of public power. The people, referred to as “recipients”, receive “vouchers” in return for completing craft items of various kinds and otherwise abiding by the Agency’s regulations. These items are sold off-world, and any form of duplication or copying is hence prohibited on the basis that it will diminish the value of these artifacts and undermine the great monopoly, owned by the Lords, which controls trade.
Mass-manufacturing is thus outlawed; the people must in general belong to one of a number of guilds (scriveners, woodcarvers, etc.) and dedicate themselves entirely to perfecting their craft, delivering the items they make to the guild and receiving their subsistence vouchers in return. If they do anything “irregulationary”, such as duplicating an item or subjecting the regime to critique, they are visited with arcane punishments; the Agency owns a metal “deportment rod” for each inhabitant of the city, and each time one of them behaves in an irregulationary fashion, an electric charge is added to their rod, until it reaches a certain level and they are forcibly “rehabilitated”. The only release valves for the people appear to be drinking, watching the occasional puppet show or other mediocre entertainment, and their ritualistic religion, which consists mostly of inane “leaping” in complex pre-ordained patterns, designed apparently deliberately to diminish the capacity for independent thought. Their cooperation is overseen always by local Welfare Agents, each of whom takes responsibility for a small neighbourhood and makes it his business to involve himself intimately in the affairs of all of his charges. Part nosey-parker, part-social worker, part-policeman, part-NKVD operative, these Agents identify trouble-makers and “chaoticists”, and otherwise strictly enforce social harmony. The only way to escape is to become a “noncup” (for “noncuperative”) and live on the outskirts of society, receiving no public support and having to fend for oneself as a pseudo-outlaw or vagrant. Few take this route: most unthinkingly and gratefully abide by the Welfare Agency’s strictures, content to live out their lives secure in the knowledge that if they behave themselves they will always have their substantive needs met.
Those who have read their Tocqueville will recognise in Ambroy something akin to the dismal portrait he depicts of the fate of democracy. Democracies, Tocqueville warns us, may fall prey to violent tyranny, but they are far more vulnerable to a different kind of despotism altogether: the dominance of what, borrowing from Michel Foucault, I think of as pastoral power. Calling on us to imagine the future of the State, Tocqueville describes it as an “immense and tutelary power,” which takes it upon itself to secure the gratifications and “watch over [the] fate” of each and every individual - “absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.” Like a parent who sees its task as to keep its population in perpetual childhood, such a State “willingly labours…to spare them all the care of thinking and the trouble of living”; in “cover[ing] the surface of society” with its “network of small, complicated rules”, it does not “destroy” or “terrorise”, but “compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people” until they are reduced to “nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” Ostensibly benevolent, it “chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter” of the people’s happiness, ensuring they “think of nothing but rejoicing”, and as a result robs them of their agency, their individuality, their initiative, and therefore ultimately their freedom.
Vance, in Emphyrio, thus places himself in a tradition of libertarian thought which is interested not so much in economics or politics but rather in the moral conditions on which freedom rests. Michael Oakeshott, in On Human Conduct, sets out two different conceptualisations of the relationship between morality and freedom: the morality of the “individual” and the “anti-individual”. In the former, moral choice is understood as properly inhering in the individual human being: it is for each person (in reference to her circumstances, culture, society, family background and so on) to decide for herself what is right or wrong in any given circumstance. In the latter, moral choice is exercised on the behalf of the population by a clerisy of experts, who create extensive laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that everybody does the “right” thing. In a system of individual morality, for example, it is up to everybody to determine for themselves whether they should eat chocolate and how much; in a system of anti-individual morality, the State must put in place “sugar taxes” to try to nudge them into eating less.
In no human society does individual or anti-individual morality completely prevail, and nor should it (few would wish, for example, to live in a place where the decision on whether or not to murder others is based on individual choice alone) but Ambloy is characterised very strongly by the latter. Its people are constantly supervised by the overweening and smothering presence of the Welfare Agents, who monitor what they buy, do or say so as to carefully ensure that they are never doing anything irregulationary. They cannot engage in commercial enterprise and are discouraged from spending time in any pursuit other than their allocated craft and the pointless “leaping” of their religion; their moral choices, in other words, are almost entirely circumscribed. What is right or wrong for them to do has already been predetermined in reference to the Agency’s regulations, and all that is left for them to do is to meekly obey. The quid pro quo, of course, is that they receive a continual supply of vouchers in return, such that they are relatively well-fed, well-housed, and healthy.
This is disastrous - a “moral enormity”, as Oakeshott would have put it – because, deprived of the capacity to make meaningful choice, the people of Ambloy are as a consequence deprived of the very conditions in which both individual freedom and morality itself are realised. What is freedom, in the end, if not the capacity to make choices, and what does morality consist of if not the exercising of choice so as to do the right thing when the wrong thing is also possible? To behave morally when the choice is pre-determined is no morality at all but merely the performance of good manners; to choose to do the right thing is not freedom at all when one is prevented from doing anything wrong in the first place. The people of Ambloy are reduced, in the end, to a mere performance of morality and hence an ultimately trivial existence: nothing they do is of consequence or import, either to themselves or others.
Worse than this, though, is that the habit of freedom has been drained out of them. The consequence of anti-individual morality, for Oakeshott, was that if given flight through law it would produce a population of “individual manqués” – passive, inert, lacking initiative, easily manipulated, looking always to the State to exercise choice on their behalf, and interested only in the satisfaction of a “conscript assured of his dinner.” Such a people, as Antony de Jasay warns us in The State, lose the capacity for spontaneous civic action entirely, becoming ever less capable of acting alone or with their families, friends and neighbours to solve their problems, and ever more reliant on the State to do it for them. This, as Vance shows us, is the consequence of inhabiting a society like Ambloy – an uncreative, uninteresting, and apathetic populace living out their humdrum lives, achieving nothing, going nowhere, and leaving no mark behind them when they die.
Vance, then, sits in the most thoughtful and provocative strand of libertarian thought, almost where it comes full circle, indeed, and overlaps with the extremes of critical theory. As Amiante, the real hero of the tale, puts it at one point: “Freedom, privileges, options, must constantly be exercised, even at the risk of inconvenience. Otherwise they fall into desuetude and become unfashionable, unorthodox—finally irregulationary.” Freedom, in other words, is something that one has to do, to perform, at all costs – to exercise. Here, he channels the arch-crit himself, Michel Foucault, who once said that “Freedom is practice . . . [it] is what must be exercised . . . I think it can never be inherent in the structure of things to (itself) guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” It is not law or politics or religion or anything else which protects freedom, but the insistence of the populace on behaving freely in so far as it is possible to do so. If it fails in this task, freedom withers.
What is most interesting about Emphyrio is that Vance appears to have recognised that it is not only the State, but also private power, which threatens freedom on these terms. The people of Ambroy are not merely the pawns of the all-powerful Welfare Agency; they are also conscripted into guilds so that they can produce their beautiful artefacts for one single great monopolistic trading company which grows fat off the sales of their work off-world. They live out their choice-free, amoral lives not only for the furtherance of the State, in other words, but also literally for the purpose of generating wealth for the wealthy. There is in this a bleak foreshadowing of our own era, in which from an early age children are hooked on social media so that they can spend a lifetime producing the “clicks” and “eyeballs” for a few vast monopolistic firms, living lives as vapid, passive and enervated as any Oakeshottian individual manqué - their every decision pre-determined by the “choice architecture” of whatever platform they happen to inhabit at any given moment. In his recent work Matthew Crawford warns that a fundamentally passive future awaits us all unless we get back into the habit of practicing freedom for real. Emphyrio provides us with a final note of optimism that it might never be too late – but it may take an almighty hero to rescue us. 

In closing, it bears emphasising that Vance, unlike (say) Ayn Rand, was in the end a stylish, thoughtful, and tremendously entertaining writer. It is possible to read Emphyrio without considering really any of these themes, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. (I mentioned earlier that it is suffused with the mood of a Viriconium or a Book of the New Sun; I found it essentially their equal in terms of quality, and a great deal shorter to boot.) 

Friday, 22 October 2021

Humanoid=Animal Pairings

Last night, I watched a documentary that featured a segment on chimpanzees. When you see the raw power, belligerence and sadism of male chimps - the sense they give off even in repose that in a split second they could explode into violence - it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they would make great orcs.

For me, goblins are like magpies. There is something cruel about the acquisitiveness and greed of a magpie. They are constantly on the look out for food, but they also give the impression that, all things considered, they also like to inflict misery and pain while doing so. (Eating carrion is good, but eating baby sparrows alive while listening to the impotent cries of their parents is better.)

Elves work well as cats. Slinky, inscrutable, lazy, and lacking in all empathy. There is no meaningful distinction between the aesthetically pleasing and the moral; murder is justified so long as it is done beautifully.

Dwarves are badgers. Industrious, gruff, reliant on tried-and-tested heuristics rather than creative flair.

Ogres are like elephant seals. They imbue strength, size, power and aggression with religious significance; one reaches fulfilment in both inflicting and receiving suffering and pain. 

Halflings are beavers. Self-reliant and deriving pleasure only from a job well done. 

Suggest your own. 

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

I Have a Dream

As Pharoah came to Joseph, I call upon the nascent dream interpreters of the OSR blogosphere to tell me the meaning of the dream I had last night. (There used to be a regular commenter who was spookily good at this; is he still around?) It was the most vivid I have had in years, and, unusually, it has stuck in my memory.

In it, a friend and I had discovered the PDF of a supplement to an obscure medieval wargame, released in 2004. With great care, we were able to use this supplement to reconstruct the core rules. We then arranged to play a game of it with Daniel Craig, David Starkey, and various other more anonymous figures. This took place at night in a dimly-lit room in a flat above a shop, with a large drinks cabinet full of obscure aperitifs, like dubonnet and Ricard. Each of us had to choose a 'general' to command our forces; my friend chose Olaf from Frozen; I chose Pascal the chameleon from Tangled. I can't remember the rules or how the game was played, except that it took place on a huge tabletop that was covered with a dense forest of minis; I couldn't work out which were mine, and David Starkey kept berating me for my failings. 

The name of the game was Legendarium.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

On The Force Awakens and Positive Negative Reactions

It's quite common for people to cite particular books, pieces of music, films, sporting events, and so on as major influences on the course of their lives - even as revolutionary moments. "I saw Meat Loaf performing 'You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)' in Slough in the spring of '81 and it changed me, man!"

I have my share of these, many of which are, with the benefit of hindsight, revealed as awful cliches or appallingly cringeworthy. (First picking up and reading The Two Towers as a 10- or 11-year-old; first hearing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on a dodgy cassette player on my mate's hi-fi circa 1992; seeing Nina Simone a few years before she died at the Liverpool Philharmonic; first seeing a live football match, Tranmere Rovers 3 - 0 Preston North End - an FA Cup tie around 1988; first watching Goldfinger; first reading a Fighting Fantasy book; first reading Michael Oakeshott; first listening to August and Everything After by Counting Crows as an impressionable teenager on the recommendation of girl I fancied; etc.) 

These experiences are usually remembered because of their essentially affirmative qualities. In the case of The Two Towers, for example, reading the first chapter of that book at the time I read it probably set me up for a life of being positively predisposed towards fantasy literature. I didn't know what I was reading, really (I had no idea The Fellowship of the Ring even existed), but I knew that I liked it, and I still remember the feeling of being swept along in the company of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, three characters I had not encountered, and not knowing who they were chasing or why. 

More rarely, we remember such experiences because they were so negative they turn us off something for life. To this day I cannot enjoy the music of the Rolling Stones, for example. This is because, as a child, when I was laid out with severe flu, it so happened that Rock and Roll Circus came on the little black-and-white TV my parents had put at the foot of the bed. I had such horrible half-awake, half-asleep nightmares as a result (something about Mick Jagger in a top hat chasing me around with a horde of donkeys) that to this day I just can't bring myself to listen to the band. It's not a phobia; I don't break out in a cold sweat. I just hate them.

What very few people talk about are the dark twins of these formative experiences: the books, pieces of music, films and so on that provoke what I will call a "positive negative reaction". My example of this is The Force Awakens. I think I had already reached a point of dissatisfaction with popular culture in general at that point, but something about The Force Awakens really made me want to retreat to a 'monastery of the mind' and never come out. I don't know if it was just the fact that it was so clearly a lazy retread of Episodes IV-VI, or the forgettable dialogue, or the blithe disregard for there being any requirement to have a coherent or plausible plot or backstory, but there was something profoundly wrong with the heart of that film, in my view, that trumped the (admittedly considerable) entertainment value of watching it. It felt somehow corrupting. All that money, all that effort, all that creativity, all the cumulative hours spent in front of a screen for all those millions who watched it - wasted.

That negative experience, though, had what was in retrospect a positive influence on my life. It had an inoculating effect: ever since, I've been completely uninterested in nerd-hype. Whether it's anything Star Wars related, the Marvel films, whatever the blockbuster or boxed set of the day - I'm "double-jabbed". Not interested. You would be better off trying to get me to sit down and watch dressage. 

This has been extremely freeing, this feeling, akin to being told to go home early from school on a snow day. We live under intense pressure, I think, to always be watching the latest film, the latest boxed set, the latest series, and it's only once you're out of that mindset and you feel the sense of immense relief that comes with it that you realise that there was something unhealthy going on. I'm very happy I saw The Force Awakens, because it was a positive negative event; I've not been the same since.

Of course, the question then becomes: can there be a negative positive experience? Will I reach my death bed with the realisation that enjoying The Two Towers all those years previously harmed my life prospects in some fundamental way? Stay tuned.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

The Results Are In

Regular commenters on this blog are global society's true intellectual elite, and their opinions can therefore be treated as being as near as it is possible to get to objective truth. Let us, then, pay careful heed to their answers to yesterday's questions:

1. The Best Star Wars prequel (and no, Rogue One doesn't count - you knew I meant the real ones): Revenge of the Sith. (I was shocked that Attack of the Clones gave it a run for its money. Don't make me reconsider that "intellectual elite" comment.)

2. The Best Fellowship of the Ring Member: Sam. God damn it, but Frodo almost didn't get any votes at all until right at the last second. Without JB's kids, Legolas wouldn't have had any either - I can't help but feel that this was the films' fault. Book Legolas seems like a decent sort. Film Legolas is a tit. 

3. The Best Type of Giant: Hill, pipping Stone and Fire to the post. 

4. The Best Type of Dragon: Red. No alarms and no surprises. Somebody pointed out that green dragons' lairs probably smell like swimming pools, and this observation made the whole exercise worthwhile. 

5. The Best Type of Undead: Lich. The spread of votes was wide here, but it was always between vampires and liches. No love for heucuvas, crypt things or, surprisingly, zombies (except the juju version).

What does this teach us? I think the main takeaway is that the results of polls often default to the mean. For what it's worth, my own answers were The Phantom Menace, Gandalf, Storm, Green and Ghoul.

Friday, 15 October 2021

What is Your Favourite....?

Just for the hell of it, let's do some polling. What is your favourite:

1. Star Wars prequel?

2. Fellowship of the Ring member?

3. Giant type?

4. Dragon type?

5. Undead type?

Leave a comment under the post and I will reveal them all after 24 hours have passed. 

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Money Answereth All Things

I did not back the Avatar RPG. Not my thing at all, but good luck to them.

I have, however, heard on the grapevine that the creators' latest wheeze is to charge people money ($24 a 'ticket', for 8 hours, I believe) to take part in playtest sessions with "approved GMs".

I get it - Magpie Games run a business, and whatever people want to spend their money on is their own affair. Any anyway, it's just for playtesting - not a permanent business model.

But all the same, my initial reaction to this was still: pass the sick bucket. Something about charging money to take part in what should quintessentially be free - sitting around doing something profoundly uncool with your mates for the simple reason that you enjoy it - sends shivers down my spine; it makes all of the most pessimistic critiques of 'neoliberalism' seem positively breezy by comparison. What do we marketise next? Friendship itself? Pay me $24 and I'll hang out with you for two consecutive Saturday nights, four hours a session? 

But it is worth dwelling on the reasons why exactly the idea of 'pay-for-play' makes my skin crawl. It can't be that moneymaking in connection to RPGs is wrong. Clearly, it isn't. If you create something that people enjoy there is absolutely no reason why you should not wish to make it your profession, and, broadly speaking, that is indeed a public good - it is how we get great novels, films, music, poetry, art, sport, after all. Anybody who doubts this should watch a rugby union match played prior to 1995, when it was still an amateur sport, and compare it to a rugby union match played in the year 2021. Professionalisation produces excellence, and that is to be welcomed, and I applaud Magpie Games for their success. 

Paying to play, on the other hand, is something else. Ultimately, I think, it is wrong for the same reason that I believe paying for sex is wrong. (It should go without saying that I am not suggesting Magpie Games are somehow "prostituting" themselves - I'm just reasoning by analogy.) What is play, and why do we do it? A biologist would no doubt have a more instrumental answer to those questions, but in the end I give it Michael Oakeshott's definition as something that is enjoyed for no ulterior purpose. It is an activity that "begins and ends in itself". And it is only in play therefore that we are truly really free: it is the only thing that we do that is not designed ultimately to satisfy a material need or meet a material want of some kind, but is done purely for its own sake - because we choose it. 

This definition is broader than games specifically, and would include other leisure activities like, I think, hanging out with friends or family, sex (at least sometimes), taking a walk in the countyside, swimming in the sea, reading a book, listening to music, and so on. And it certainly includes RPGs. We play D&D not because we have to, or feel we have to, and not because it is tied to some material desire, but because we choose to do so. The moment we do it in order to make money, we diminish it - we cease to be what Oakeshott called homo ludens, and instead revert to homo laborans, a lesser being, who performs his activities because he has to or believes that to be the case, or has urges or desires that need to be fulfilled; who acts for purposes other than mere choice alone (to pay the bills, pay the mortgage, go on holiday, buy a bigger house/car/TV....).

The other point, of course, is that morality is at least in part a recognition that other human beings have an intrinsic value and are not simply materials to be used for the meeting of needs, wants or desires, and this makes play a fundamentally moral act when done with others. It is something that allows us to recognise our fellow beings as moral agents in their own right - participating for no other reason than out of choice. Paying for sex is wrong in my view because it instrumentalises the participants; it is not done purely out of choice but partly from (real or perceived) necessity or the satisfaction of an urge, and it thus transforms the other into a mere tool for the meeting of a need. It would be melodramatic in the extreme to mention paying to play the Avatar RPG in the same sentence, but at root the problem is the same; it is the transformation of something moral into something that is fundamentally amoral - the fulfilment of a need (the making of money) replacing the choice of doing something purely for its own sake.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Guessing What Soulbound is About: Or, Is This Just Lanthanum Chromate?

There is an RPG for Age of Sigmar, called Soulbound, and it has a starter set. £22.99 seems like a lot to pay for something I will almost certainly never play (I shudder to imagine what the actual 'full' version costs). But it has previews. Let us peer into them, like witches around a scrying pool.

The Cover

Curiously stagey-looking and inert, lacking in dynamism for all the harum-scarum depicted, this is fantasy art in its least appealing guise - a poor pastiche of the D&D 5th edition cover art (which is itself also curiously stagey-looking and inert, and lacking in dynamism for all the harum-scarum depicted). Thematically, though, it is interesting: crusaders entering hell to smite demons - a touch of "A Paladin in Hell", even? - I am still just about in touch enough with my 12 year old self to understand the appeal.

The Character Sheet

What this reminds me of, somewhat unexpectedly, is the oWoD character sheet, and it implies (to my eye, at least), something to do with dice pools. Perhaps the most salient point to note is that this is fairly bog standard stuff; Soulbound is not going to revolutionise RPGs as we know them. It's also, let's be honest, pretty uninspiring - choosing from a small set of circumscribed "goals", "connections" and "secrets" for one's PC is profoundly boring, but that ship just seems to have sailed at this point; it appears to be absolutely standard for RPG rulebooks to adopt that kind of approach. The OSR has affected the mainstream not a jot.

Introductory Adventure

Much to lament here. Read-aloud text. Sharing of character portraits. Strict sequencing of events. Having the players repetitively roll dice to see if their characters know things. Have we fought and died in vain?'s definitely dice pools.

One-Page Adventures

There is much to lament here, too - not a railroad exactly, but close. With all that said, a large bunch of one-page adventures, serving as springboards/examples, is probably much more useful in a starter set than a Great Big Fucking Campaign, and what's here is at least relatively light-touch in terms of stats and infodump.

What intrigues me most about what is implied here, taken together with the previous screenshot. The setting for the starter set is Brightspear, a city recently reclaimed from the forces of Tzeentch, and teetering presumably on the brink of reconquest at any time. It also seems as though there is a 'Doom' mechanic - perhaps a kind of ticking clock - which results in the gradual accumulation of 'Doom' points, which at 5, or 10, or whatever, trigger an apocalypse or invasion or something of that kind.

That theme - a city permanently besieged by unrelentingly hostile enemies, and facing an ultimate and inevitable doom that can only be staved off but never defeated - pushes all the right Viriconium/Utolso Varos /Byzantium/Principality of Theodoro buttons, and in itself tempts me. But it also raises the question: have the Age of Sigmar guys been reading Lanthanum Chromate at all? Because if Soulbound seeks to adopt a tone, a city which is nightly confronted with invasions instigated by the King of Hell, but which is protected by crazy and eccentric guardians who throw back the forces of evil by dawn each day, does feel like it might be taken from the same broad palette.

In any event - what is wrong with me? - I do feel half-tempted to get this, if as nothing else a palate-cleanser after an awful lot of D&D megadungeon meatgrinding. Can I get behind a game in which the PCs are all mighty heroes charged with smiting chaos in the unholy hybrid Planescape-meets-Warhammer that is Age of Sigmar? No, but 12 year old me can, and he's still down there somewhere.

Friday, 8 October 2021


Let's make some initial clarifications. I am not a fan of '-punk'. The only context in which I can see a use for it is in the manner obliquely referred to in Bruce Sterling's famous introduction to Burning Chrome - as fiction concerning the 'victims of the new'. Cyberpunk is about those left behind by advancing cybernetic technology; steampunk is about the have-nots of industrial society; in both cases, the task of the writer is to describe how these so-called 'victims' stick it to the man and get theirs anyway. 

A magicpunk setting, then, is one of high magic, but whose PCs have no access to it. Reliant only on their physical strength and skill, they rage against a world they hate and fear, a world dominated by distant wizards, mighty sorcerers, sinister cabals, and magical bureaucracies - and they try to get their hands on wealth and glory regardless.

In short, it is Iron Heroes, but a version that doesn't make your head hurt just to read it.

A long time ago I posted these pictures to describe a particular Sword & Sorcery tonal palette that I absolutely adore. This is what I imagine a magicpunk setting to look like. You either get it or you don't,  I suppose.

Introducing New PCs

The basic principle when introducing a new PC is to do it as rapidly as possible. This is the case whether a new player is joining or if a PC has died and a player needs a replacement, although it is probably all the more important in the latter circumstance. (Get back in the saddle!)

To this end, I have an expedited process for new PCs for my games:

  • Roll 3d6 for stats (assign to taste); choose a class
  • Roll hp
  • Roll a background on a 1d6 table
  • Choose up to two weapons
  • Choose up to one piece of armour and one shield
  • Choose up to seven other pieces of equipment (including containers, carriers, etc.)
  • Choose up to one animal
  • Note down that the PC has 25gp

This reliably takes less than 5 minutes and is very simple to deploy - the only work needed from the DM is the short table of backgrounds. (In the case of my current campaign this is: 1 - Carthaginian, 2 - Greek, 3 - Macedonian, 4 - Etruscan, 5 - Roman, 6 - Egyptian. Obviously in a more fantastical setting you would want some further elaboration, but not much more.)

It is almost always the case that a new PC can be inserted more or less straight away. If the existing PCs are on their way back to town, or in it already, the new PCs is at the inn or wherever seems appropriate. He can be a relative or friend, or simply a likely-looking fellow to take the place of poor Cedric. If the PCs are in the wilderness, they stumble across the new guy and it turns out he's going where they're going. Otherwise, on a deep dungeon delve, he is a fellow adventurer out of his depth and in need of comrades.

Of course, the absolute easiest way of introducing new players or replacing dead PCs is to make use of a hireling or henchman. This is often the way of things: a PC is killed during combat, and his player takes on one of the NPC retainers and keeps him. 

The deadliness of traditional D&D when played correctly is much ameliorated by these expedited processes for replacements. 

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Pictorial Inspiration for the Great North

I am working with an artist on 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin', The Great North. The text, long ago completed, awaits only pictures and layout; this should all be done within a year and a bit.

Here are some photos I sent to the artist to give him an idea about the landscapes which inspired the setting: