Monday, 27 June 2022

Notes Towards a Changeling: The Dreaming OSR-Based Retroclone

Buried underneath an awful lot of nonsense, there is a game somewhere in Changeling: The Dreaming, desperate to get out. It is difficult to imagine that there could be a worse, more complicated and confusing - albeit beautiful - rulebook, and vast swathes of it are dedicated to perpetuating a vision of role playing that should really be anathema to anybody with an ounce of sense. One can read the book a dozen times and still have no clear idea how to begin, and ultimately everything just seems to boil down to 'make a railroad'. 

And yet the idea - basically, there is a world of 'faerie' existing behind or in parallel to our own, visible only to certain people who have a fae soul - works when stripped down to its essence. Alongside and underneath the urban environment of houses, schools, parks, offices, pubs, shops and abandoned lots that we know so well is a fantastical landscape brimming with mythical beasts and fairy tale creatures; what looks like an empty old folks' home is really the palace of Lord Grey; what looks like a disused railway tunnel is the entrance to a network of caverns leading to a dragon's lair; what looks like a nondescript office building is really an enchantress's tower. The PCs inhabit the real world, but with exciting 'extras'. Walking down an ordinary city street, they notice that amongst that gaggle of teenage chavs there lurks a redcap, and that peering out of the window in the cafe in the floor above HSBC is the face of a witch. They have normal jobs and normal lives - but at evenings and weekends, they're searching for lost sidhe treasure or hunting a rogue member of the local unseelie court.

There is a way, in other words, to take the basic elements of C: tD and building it into something that is actually playable - a sandbox to have adventures in. It is ripe, that is to say, for the OSR treatment. 

Some basic thoughts:

  • I would probably make it race-as-class, and likely keep the original Changeling kith types, basing them on existing D&D race/classes with some modifications. So there would be:
    • Boggan (halfling)
    • Eshu (druid)
    • Nocker (dwarf)
    • Pooka (illusionist)
    • Redcap (fighter)
    • Satyr (bard)
    • Sidhe (elf)
    • Sluagh (thief)
    • Troll (barbarian)
  • The PCs would begin as low-ranking squires in a noble sidhe house, borrowing slightly from Pendragon, and would work their way up - to perhaps one day founding their own 'cadet' houses
  • Gameplay would revolve heavily around pursuing sources of adventure through investigating rumour of the kind already described above: a friend of a friend says there's an ogre's lair in the waste ground at the back of ASDA; let's check it out
  • XP for gold might not work and would need replacing with a different mechanic - XP for glory, or something?

Friday, 24 June 2022

On Mid-late 90s Sincerity and Role Playing Games

I was a bit of an unusual teenager, looking back, in that I had my feet in two quite distinctive camps. On the one hand, I was part of the extreme lower middle class RPG/wargame/metal scene. We played D&D, we played Warhammer, we played Shadowrun, we got stoned, we listened to loud music, we got into tussles with 'hippies' and 'scallies'. 

Yet I was also really into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming

When I try to explain to my kids what the dominant aesthetic of the mid-late 90s was like, I will call it 'sincere'. This was before the internet set off an irony bomb under everything (circa 2003), before a pornographic style and attitude began to pervade the popular culture (beginning from I think the noughties), and before social media started to make everyone really angry and depressed (from, say, 2014). It was a time during which we were encouraged to see the best in one another and to look to the future with optimism. The teen films of this era are distinguished by being positive about the relations between men and women in particular: think of American Pie, Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You. They are all about boys and girls learning to get along - especially about boys figuring out how to be sensitive and emotionally aware. These films don't undercut this message with meanness or archness. The message was sincerely meant. Back then, we valued the idea that everybody could learn to rub along.  

Dawson's Creek was the apogee of this turn towards sincerity. As much as it had elements of humour, the series was unrelentingly intense and serious about teenage travails. Sex was not pornographic or transactional, but imbued with almost metaphysical meaning; divorce was treated as weighty and agonising; homophobia, snobbery, mental breakdowns and the like were considered sensitively; above everything else, the storylines revolved around finding love, which seems almost passe to our irony-infused, post-internet gaze.  

And the look of the series - let's just go balls to the wall and call it its mise-en-scene - buttressed this mood. In Capeside, it always seems to be late summer or early autumn. The music is earnest, romantic, singer-songwritery, po-faced. The visuals are elegaic, somehow evoking nostalgia in its teen audience for an era which has not yet passed - the era of their own youth, passing before their eyes. Phenomenologically, watching Dawson's Creek was a bit like being transported into the future to inhabit one's own middle-aged self, and looking back at one's own teenage years through the rose-tinted spectacles of time and distance; it somehow felt simultaneously set now (1998), but also set then, as 1998 imagined as the semi-distant past. 

The music of Counting Crows also seems to encapsulate this era. Adam Duritz's lyrics are expressionistic, romantic; his heart is worn on his sleeve; he never tries to be funny or sexy, but always earnest about emotional affairs. The relationships he depicts are imbued with drama and pathos. They all seem to matter, not just to him, but somehow to the very universe itself - as though part of some grand narrative in which matters of the heart are all engaged. It is all so very sensitive (a word which women used to useall the time, it seemed, in those days: "If only I could find somebody sensitive.") 

Watch Duritz go - this, whatever else you might say, is a very sensitive man:



It could just be timing, but I can't help but feel that something of this aesthetic filtered into role playing games, perhaps in Vampire: The Masquerade, but most notably in my experience in Changeling: The Dreaming. I never really played Changeling, not much, because the way it was presented by White Wolf made it essentially unplayable; but what I did do was look through it lovingly and wallow in the waves of bittersweetness and nostalgia for lost youth that seemed to wash out of its pages. It struck exactly the same kind of notes as Dawson's Creek did: it felt elegaic, sorrowful about the passing of time, veiled by late-summer sunlight, and above all obsessed with the importance of feelings sincerely felt.

If you're not sure what I mean when I refer to this aesthetic, then looking at some internal art from Changeling communicates it, I think, perfectly. I mean:



(You probably have to 'embiggen' that one to get just how Dawson's Creek it is.)




There is a bit of mid-late 90s sincerity to the D&D of that era, as well, to my eye - indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that Monte Cook had also been into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming. This was the period during which TSR, and WotC after it, really began to get serious about PCs having an emotional life of their own rather than being mere ciphers for the players. Gradually, it began to seem as though it mattered for PCs to have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Dungeoneering and gaining treasure was passe; what began to matter was story and "role playing rather than roll-playing". The whole enterprise came to be very sincere as a consequence.

Sincerity is entirely defensible in TV, film, literature and music, but not, I think, in the context of games, where it easily becomes very cloying and awkward. With that said, a little goes a long way: the OSR often seems to pride itself on having a lack of sincerity, and a sprinkling of a little po-faced sentimentality may be what is needed to freshen things up a bit. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Advice for Everyone

DMing advice is common. Advice for players, less so, though Rise Up Comus has an interesting recent post on the subject, with more here

What is noticeable about these kind of pointers is that they tend to revolve around the question of how to play the game well ('solve questions orthogonally'; 'here are some tips on looking for secret doors'). We can call this kind of advice interior in that it involves what happens within the framework of the game itself.

Jordan Peterson (yes, I know: boo, hiss - just hear me out) made a very insightful comment in an interview with, I think Sam Harris. To paraphrase, there are two ways of being good at a game (let's say, five-a-side football or hockey or chess) when you are a kid. You can be the best at the actual game itself on its own terms. Or you can be somebody who it is very enjoyable to play the game with. These are two different things and are often, indeed, at odds with one another: the kid who is best at five-a-side and knows it is often the last one that other kids will spontaneously invite to play with them. What is probably better, in the grand scheme of things, is to be 'good' in the sense that it's fun for other people to have you involved - that is the way to make and keep friends and influence people. 

I think this is almost certainly true. Although every professional sportsperson you could name was probably in the other camp and was willing to sacrifice friendship in order to be 'the best' (and did very well as a consequence), we don't pay much attention to the many thousands of their failed fellow travellers who would probably have been better off being 'good' at playing in the sense to which Jordan Peterson was referring. Genuine individuals with faith in their own talent are free to do what they like, but society, as they say, should back the field. 

There is space also, then, for exterior advice - how to be a good player in the sense that it is nice to have you involved. I think this would include, for example:

  • Don't have your cellphone handy - concentrate on what is happening at the table
  • Listen and pay attention even when your PC is not the centre of the action
  • Take notes and appear engaged
  • Ask the DM if you don't understand something
  • Prompt the other players for their ideas, especially the quiet ones
  • &c.
There will of course be others.

The question then becomes: is there a relationship between interior and exterior advice? I think that there is. Engaging in trying to play the game well in the interior sense can, in the right balance, bring exactly the right sort of energy and buzz to the table, and thus make one valuable to have around. Being good at the game is in other words a way of being good at playing. But be careful - because if you try to play the game too well, just like the kid who can't stop scoring goals at five-a-side, you may end up getting a reputation. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

In Defence of RPG Flanerie

The flâneur, literally a "stroller" or one who "wanders without purpose", is the word for a man (or woman) of leisure who saunters idly through urban streets observing his surroundings with detached curiosity. Though a part of the scene, he stands apart from the activity around him, choosing instead merely to watch, as though from behind a glass screen. Tourists often engage in flânerie, but of course it encompasses a wider range of behaviours than that - think about the last time you went for a stroll along a high street, promenade or shopping mall, or sat at a cafe watching the world go by. You were engaging in flânerie then, and you liked it.

A lot of what we do as RPG enthusiasts is the equivalent of this. We buy campaign settings and modules not necessarily to play them, but really just to dip in and out of - to read at our leisure, flipping from one page to another, becoming absorbed in a text box here, an illustration there, a table, a hexmap. In one sitting we might look at 10-20 pages, not necessarily in the right order, and rarely all contiguously. Thoughts and images pass through our mind as we briefly imagine what the places described really look like and what would happen in them. We enjoy turning the potentialities over in our own minds, knowing that they will never be realised: what it would be like to run a game in this setting, to create a character for it, to interact with the contents. I could reel off a list of RPG books I have bought and only ever really used for flânerie: Changeling: The Dreaming, most of the Planescape stuff, that time travel game whose name escapes me, Maze of the Blue Medusa, and many more. 

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact it places RPG materials in a venerable and rich tradition of literary forms which are best enjoyed through flânerie. Travel guide books are the best example of this: I own dozens, but I don't believe I have ever referred to one 'in anger', so to speak - they are spurs for the imagination, not sources of useful information. Ordnance Survey maps, of course, are another example; road maps likewise. (I still keep a big A3 road map book in the glove box of my car just so I can gaze at random pages when bored, muttering things like "Oh, so that's where Wednesbury is?" or "Hmm, Derby is further north than you would think..." under my breath.) Then there are all those thick tomes about dinosaurs, animals, tanks, and the like that you always used to see on people's bookshelves before there was an internet to speak of, and which now primarily seem to exist only in the context of holiday rentals. There's encyclopedias, too, of course, and all those 501 Beers to Drink/Albums to Hear/Paintings to See/Cheeses to Eat Before You Die books which grow up from nowhere, like weeds, in garden centre bookshops in the run-up to Christmas. And let's not forget cookbooks - I can't tell you the last time I cooked something from out of one of them, but I can tell you the last time I looked through a Hairy Bikers book and imagined eating wild boar in Corsica. 

I am not ashamed of a bit of flânerie, and I like to think that Yoon-Suin has given something to its own select audience of flâneurs, too. We sometimes take all this 'at the table' stuff too seriously - what happens at the coffee table matters also. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

D&D's Uniqueness and the Inevitability of Roleplaying

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. As many of you pointed out in the comments, one would probably have to put Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson into the Newton/Einstein camp, in that the creation of role playing games was probably inevitable and would have happened at some point soon anyway. But there is a genuine case to be made that it was not inevitable - and even quite unlikely - that it should have ended up a fantasy game, and particularly one about exploring dungeons.

As will be evident to anyone (and, again, as most commenters pointed out yesterday), human beings like role playing, and will do it even with purportedly abstract games, or when on their own. Nobody who has ever played a video or board game can fail to notice that as soon as there is some character or item with which one can personally identify, people begin to act in accordance with that particular 'role' and to a certain extent assume it psychologically (if only for the duration of playing the game). 

Insofar as this is true, I think we can safely say that at some point people would have come up with something along the lines of D&D even if Gygax and Arneson had never been born. It is only a very short leap from 'doing a voice' while guiding the battleship around the Monopoly board and haughtily demanding rent for a competitor landing on Old Kent Road, to actually role playing 'let's pretend to be 19th century property developers and make up complicated rules for the game'. It would have happened sooner or later.

However, it is really rather unusual that the first real role playing game worthy of the name happened to have an assumed fantasy setting rather than anything else. It seems to me that, all other things being equal, one would have expected the first role playing game to have emerged from historical wargames (as it did so, indirectly), and hence have something to do with either the Napoleonic era, World War I or World War II. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there turns out to be a large number of parallel universes in which 'D&D' is actually a Commando comics-style WWII 'special forces' RPG.

(Other possibilities that seem at least as, if not more, plausible than a fantasy setting for a first-ever RPG include something to do with sport, a specific historical era, colonisation, business tycoons, even biblical stories.) 

Gygax and Arneson, in other words, also have a bit of the Gustave Eiffel about them. The concept of the role playing game was probably always going to be invented, but the fact that RPGs have become synonymous with a particular type of fantasy is surprising, in hindsight, and really has to be put down to fluke - or, being charitable, to a genuine flash of genius,.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

How Unique is D&D?

I can't remember where I came across this little aphorism (for some reason I have it in my head that it was in a Luis Bunuel interview), and I am almost certainly misremembering it, but the gist of it is as follows: if you had to eliminate from history two people from the list of Isaac Newton, Gustave Eiffel and Albert Einstein, you would have to choose Newton and Einstein. Their discoveries would eventually have been made by other people, because they concern immutable laws of the universe. But Eiffel's tower would never have existed without him. You could therefore afford to lose from the path of human development the two great scientists as individuals, but not the clever French engineer.

You may not agree that the Eiffel Tower is anything to write home about, but the point remains: some great works are inevitable. Others are flashes of insight that are truly unique. All other things being equal, the latter are probably the more valuable. 

Would the achievements of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson fall into the Newton/Einstein or Eiffel category? I think I know the answer. But I'm curious to hear yours. 

Put your thoughts in the comments. We will revisit the matter tomorrow. 

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Table of Hippogriff Traits

The PCs in my weekly game have tamed some hippogriffs. This calls for a chart of random hippogriff traits.

The default hippogriff has HD 3+1, AC 5, #ATT 3, DMG 1d6/1d6/1d10, Move 180 (Fly 360), Save As F2, ML 8. 

Consult the following table for variations. 

D20

Physical Characteristic

Personality

1

Small (2+1 HD)

Has a taste for human flesh (will attack any encountered NPC on a roll of 2 on a 2d6)

2

Large (4+1 HD)

Rivalrous (sees any other hippogriff as a rival; has to pass a morale check each round in combat or attack whatever its nearest rival is attacking) 

3

Albino (never surprises opponents, but continually blesses itself and its rider)

Loud (never stops vocalising; never surprises opponents)

4

Blind in one eye (-2 to hit)

Hates 1 – Dwarfs, 2 – Elves, or 3 – Halflings, and cannot abide to be ridden by one; will attack any such species enemy that comes within bite range

5

Three legged (only one claw attack)

Wilful (may not obey even simple commands; has a 1 in 6 chance of going off on a frolic of its own, as determined by the DM, each round during combat)

6

Fat (flies at 240, runs at 120)

Vicious (does +2 damage, but spends 1d3 additional rounds savaging the corpse of anything it kills)

7

Fast (always acts first in combat)

Meek (baulks at confrontation; must pass a morale check at the start of each combat in order to participate)

8

Old (always acts last in combat)

Gluttonous (must pass a morale check if anything is killed in a 12’ radius of its position; failure means the hippogriff must spend 1d6 rounds devouring the carcass) 

9

Broken-winged (cannot fly)

Lustful (must pass a morale check if a hippogriff of the opposite sex is present in order to refrain from attempting mating)

10

Two-headed (two bite attacks)

Restive (must pass a morale check each round in order to remain still, unless asleep)

11

Roll twice, ignoring contradictory results

Friendly (any human interacting with the hippogriff gets a +2 bonus to animal handling rolls)

12

Roll three times, ignoring contradictory results

Intelligent (can obey complex commands and engage in conversation if the hippogriff language is known)



Saturday, 11 June 2022

Call Me Frodo

One of the characteristics of American literature in the period from 1800 up to 1950 or so is its individualistic heroes, often lacking a past and being somewhat estranged from society. Hence the sum total of Moby Dick's protagonist's backstory is "Call me Ishmael"; think also of Edgar Allan Poe's many isolated, rootless viewpoint characters, or Huckleberry Finn, the "poor motherless thing". It's not just a feature of American letters during the period, of course (Lord Jim, which I happen to be reading at the moment, is an obvious example), but it is a notable one.

This is in contrast with European novels of the same period, which tended to have large casts of characters with obsessively detailed backgrounds and complicated familial relationships - a good example being Emile Zola's "Rougon-Macquart" novels: twenty books about the history of two branches of an extended family during the Second French Empire. This, of course, harks back to a much older tradition: medieval and pre-medieval authors thought it of the greatest importance to locate their heroes in a family tree, and often go to some length to detail what so-and-so's father and grandfather and great-grandfather did before the proper story gets going.

(One doesn't need to be Sigmund Freud to observe that the former of these bodies of literature was mostly written by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants to a newly discovered continent with a so-called "frontier" and the latter was written by people whose ancestors had lived since time immemorial in densely populated landscapes with very conservative social mores.) 

Tolkien sits interestingly between these two positions. On the one hand, his two heroes (which I still take to be Bilbo and Frodo even though a case can be made that Sam is really the chief protagonist of LotR) are given lengthy and detailed backgrounds, and it is even made clear that their ancestry and bloodlines have had a strong influence on the formation of their character. They are by no means "William Wilsons". And Tolkien was clearly deliberately channeling older forms of literature in this regard.

And yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings also explore very "American" themes: the leaving of home to make a new life elsewhere; the exploring of a vast and dangerous land in the name of adventure; the severing of familial ties (neither Bilbo nor Frodo appears to actually care about his relatives); the sense of estrangement from society (again, neither of them is exactly an integral part of their community even at the beginning of their respective stories). Neither of the ring-bearers is Bartleby the Scrivener. But nor are they like characters from a Jane Austen novel; they are escaping society, not finding their way in it.

Part of the success of Tolkien's work can therefore be attributed, I think, to his straddling two quite distinctive pre-modernist approaches to literature - the American and the European. He was very interested in the details of his world. But his characters are not embedded in them. 

Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Physical Adept

Any sufficiently advanced physical skill is indistinguishable from magic. There is a point at which a virtuoso makes something look simultaneously both so easy and so difficult that it no longer appears to the layperson to be the result of mere practice, but of some mystifying and possibly genuinely God-given gift. Here are some examples:

1) Danny Carey's drumming. I have a love/hate relationship with Tool, but there is no doubting the astounding musicianship and skill of the band's constituent members. In any case, watch him go:



2) Brett Lee bowling at Piers Morgan. I don't know if there is a video on the internet that better illustrates the difference between a professional sportsman and an amateur than this one. Piers Morgan, as loathsome as he is, is not a bad club-level cricketer. Brett Lee, despite being a few years retired and way past his prime when this video was made, makes him look like a toddler. 



3) Paco de Lucia. What can one say?



4) The Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2. Consider how tiny and unimpressive a violin looks, and then listen to the astonishing sound it produces in the hands of a master. A Martian could only conclude it was imbued with powerful Earthling-magic. 




5) I hate Arsenal and Robin van Persie but this goal just looks like a wizard did it. It ought not to be physically possible to generate that much power, pace and accuracy from the position which he does. I don't care if you don't like or have never watched football - just watch the last, slo-mo replay at the very end of the video. It resembles something from a Marvel Superheroes film.



6) Roger and Floyd Mayweather working the mitts. Then Floyd by himself, skipping. This is just somebody practising.




7) I don't have a love/hate relationship with Al Di Meola, just a love-love one. Listen to him messing around with "Norwegian Wood" with Rick Beato: https://youtu.be/tU745UovT2g?t=376

8) You don't need a gym to work out, you know.





I could go on. The point of all of this, of course, is to emphasise that when human beings do not need to spend their entire lives foraging for food, escaping from predators, or slaving away in the fields, they can devote vast amounts of time to getting absurdly good at certain activities. Some of them get so good that they can become professional and do almost literally nothing else, and get absurdly better yet. 

In a world in which there was magic, and in which therefore there could be a class of people with no requirement to do serious work at all, what kind of physical feats would they become capable of? The stereotypical D&D wizard is a frail, bookish nerd - Raistlin from the Dragonlance books - but I wonder if in reality they wouldn't be the opposite. A wizard of middling power can charm bands of servants to carry out his every whim, create fool's gold to pay for anything he likes, and is probably mates with a cleric or two who can heal him if ever he gets into trouble. In such circumstances, what excuse would he have not to become absolutely brilliant at boxing, the guitar, cricket and climbing?

Shadowrun had a character class called the "physical adept", which did not exactly replicate this concept, being more of a melee-oriented fighter, but whose title I would like to steal. The D&D physical adept is in truth much wider in scope, and encompasses not merely immense skill in combat, but in any chosen field of excellence. 


Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Recommend Me Books, Part 347

This has always worked well in the past, and my 'to read' pile has shrunk from being about as tall as the Eiffel Tower to being only about the height of my house, so it's time to get some more books. Please therefore recommend to me some reading material, particularly, but not limited to:

  • Good 'minor' Jack Vance. I have read all his major works, by which I mean all of the series, except for Durdane, which is on my shelf and probably next in line to read. I would like to know which of the standalone novels and short story collections are good. (Bear in mind I've read Emphyrio and also have Nightlamp on the shelf.)
  • Histories of the French Revolution.
  • Biographies of Napoleon and Lenin (preferably in the Robert Caro vein).
  • Books about SF and Fantasy (literary criticism/theory).
  • Histories of Latin America, particularly Brazil, Argentina and Chile. 
  • Military history.
  • Political biographies.

I am also always in the market for good novels in general, of any genre, with a preference for anything written before the year 1990. If you just happen to have read something great lately, put it in the comments.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

The Joy of Sub-Games; the Guiding Five Hundred Refugees System

Now and again, the opportunity comes up to develop a sub-game within the campaign proper. My favourite example of this was my Riding a Giant Tadpole Over a Waterfall into a Lake Full of Giant Pikes(tm) system that I developed for an old Ryuutama game. This week, due to reasons too complicated to get into, I have to devise a new one, which I am provisionally calling Guiding Five Hundred Refugees Across a Wilderness While Possibly Being Pursued by Giant Swans and Swanmays. 

My normal rules for wilderness travel are more or less what one finds in the Rules Cyclopedia. Each day, roll 1d6 to see if there is an encounter (usually 1-2, depending on the environment), and each night, roll 1d12. But that's for a group of, say, 4-12 people, inclusive of PCs and entourage. When there are five hundred non-combatants involved, the calculation changes: they are going to be moving more slowly than usual; they are going to draw much more attention (especially in open areas); and they are going to occupy a wide area of ground in which an encounter might take place (is the encounter at the van, to the rear, or to one flank or another?). 

So, the tasks break down as follows:

1. Calculate distance coverage. Each individual occupies 1m of space. So if 500 people are walking in line, they occupy 500m. This is a little artificial, but represents the fact that when a large group of people are walking in a wilderness area, they will tend to walk in small clumps of ones, twos or threes, often with some distance between the groups. 500 people will occupy on average 500m of ground.

Then plot the walking column as a sequence of 50-person numbered squares. 500 people will occupy 10 such squares, thus:

Ask the players to position their PCs in one of these squares, 1-10. There is no requirement for PCs to all be in the same square.

2. Calculate chance of encounters. For a group of more than 50 people, the chance of an encounter increases. If the chance of an encounter is normally 1 in 6, it becomes 2 in 6; if the chance is normally 2 in 6, it becomes 4 in 6, and if the chance is normally 3 in 6, it becomes automatic. 

3. Calculate speed. The column moves at the rate of its slowest member. 

4. Roll for encounters each day and night as normal. If an encounter is indicated, roll for encounter distance as normal, but also roll 1dx, where [x] corresponds to the square in the column at which point the encounter takes place. For instance, if the encounter is 20 orcs, and the accompanying roll is an 8, this means 20 orcs appear at square 8 on the column.

5. Check PC reaction speed. If a PC is within the square at which the encounter takes place, roll for surprise as normal. That PC can react to the encounter. A PC can also react if an encounter takes place in a neighbouring square (if travelling in forest, hills, badland, etc.) or up to 5 squares away (if on flat ground in the open) - again, roll for surprise as normal. PCs who are too far away from an encounter to react must be alerted. An alert will spread up and down the column from the square in which the encounter takes place at a rate of 1 square every other round.

6. If a PC is not present to react, roll the reaction dice for both the creature encountered and those travelling in the column. For those travelling in a column, on a 2-3 the refugees flee; on a 4-6 they are panicked (roll again in one round with a -4 penalty); on a 7-9 they freeze in fear (roll again in one round); on a 10-11 they are brave (roll again in one round with a +4 penalty); on a 12 they stand their ground.

Should be useful with modifications for any journey involved large numbers of people. I'll test it out on Friday and, possibly, report back on the results.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

So What Is Behind Gently Smiling Jaws?


A project which has been through so many iterations I've long ago lost count, but which is now whittled down to its bare essence - a mere three volumes of densely packed stuff. The ambition is that these volumes will be contained in a single slipcase out from which it will feel sensually exciting to slide them.

The "elevator pitch": an immortal crocodile, born before the dinosaurs, slumbers in a lost lake. To preserve their own immortality the members of the original human civilization, the Naacals, entered its memory palace. Later, other interlopers came as well. But then the contents of the crocodile's dreams began to seep into the world outside, the real world, until the seeping became an explosion and modernity was swept away. We now find ourselves in a distant eon after the crocodilian apocalypse - with humanity having long ago reconciled itself to survival on a planet, and in a reality, that has been radically and irreversibly altered by its encounter with a reptilian mind.

Volume I - Dusk in the Unremembered City allows one to construct one's own version of the Unremembered City, the home of the Naacals - an island many dozens of miles across, which has been floating for so long that many of its regions have gone back to wilderness and many of its inhabitants have retreated into madness. The city itself gains its name because it is the only region of the world (and possibly now of the universe itself) that does not derive its essence from having been remembered by the crocodile. The PCs are barbarians - "native" human arrivals come to make their fame and fortune in the great city, the original city, the city where civilisation was born. 

Volume II - Noon in the Remembered World allows one to map regions of the post-apocalyptic Earth and populate them with the memories and fantasies of the crocodile and the Seven Who Entered - and the remnant barbarian human polities who have come under their sway. The PCs are members of those barbarian petty statelets, or Young Naacal adventurers and explorers, making their way in a world remade.

Volume III - Dawn in the Crocodilian Apocalypse is an investigative affair in the vein of Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulhu. The crocodilian apocalypse is upon the world of 2022 (or 1982, or 1952, or 1922, or whenever you prefer), but nobody yet knows it. Nobody indeed knows anything, except for a very small set of eccentrics, conspiracy theorists, outcasts and weirdos who have begun to notice that the fabric of reality is fraying, and very strange things indeed are leaking out through the gaps....

I will expand on what is meant by all this in future posts. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Running Modules As Written

About a year ago, Luka Rejec made the case that nobody runs D&D modules "as written", and indeed that it is impossible to do so. What the author envisages will never be perfectly transposed into the text, and every reader will encounter and interpret the text differently. And that's before the plan, so to speak, makes contact with the enemy. Every gaming group is different, and will approach the setup in its own particular way. That there could be a "complete" module a DM could run off the bat is hence a pipe dream.

Prince of Nothing, everybody's favourite Dutch internet edgelord, has recently responded, calling this position untenable and making the case that a module-writer should think of a module as being something like a video game level - a set of obstacles, locations, threats, etc., which the PCs have to overcome. Every group will of course encounter every module in a different way, but a good module will itself play out consistently, in the same way, just as a video game level is the same for each player (even though the actual events play out differently in practice every time). 

Now, on the one hand, I am on record as saying: "I have never run anything I have bought as is, and can never really imagine how anybody would; I can only really imagine somebody buying an adventure or module and pulling out bits here, removing bits there, switching X around with Y and Z with A, or perhaps just going away inspired to do their own vague pastiche of the contents." So I suppose my natural inclinations run in Luka's direction. I don't often buy modules (and when I do, I am generally excessively critical), but I have bought enough to know that running one as written would feel to me a little bit like wearing somebody else's clothes. 

Yet at the same time, I recognise the virtue in attempting to realise PoN's quixotic dream. However people end up using modules, it is probably important that those who design them aspire for them to realise the ideal of being consistently playable, whatever the group or circumstances, "out of the box". The alternative - aspiring to create modules which will not be played, but merely read, plundered or pastiched - is likely to end in sloppiness and a kind of grab-bag mentality, with the author simply putting together a jumble of related ideas or impressions that lack coherence even as reading material. We must hold ourselves to high standards, in other words, because when we cease to do so, we tend to let ourselves go; once we have given ourselves the excuse that "nobody will ever play this anyway", we give ourselves license to create stuff which is, frankly, half-arsed. 

I suppose a simpler way of saying this is that I am "intensely relaxed" about people buying adventure modules purely to be read and never played, but the best modules to read are likely to be ones which the designer has made strenuous efforts to make consistent and robust. This is very likely to be correlated with quality in all other respects. The obverse is also true; if the designer hasn't made such efforts, this is very likely to be correlated with a lack of quality in the round. (I don't accuse Luka of this - I can honestly say I've never read anything he's written, but I do really love his art.)

An even simpler way of stating my position is that, in general, people in 2022 are already a bit too ready to make excuses for themselves for being kind of shit in most aspects of their lives, and anything which encourages that kind of mindset should really be discouraged. I like the idea of at least aspiring to make something perfect, not just jotting down some nice concepts. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Stories Are Important

 [I]t often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food...are all the work of the Increate. Thus, stories are small things indeed in the scheme of the universe, but it is hard not to love best what is our own...

-Severian, from Gene Wolfe's The Citadel of the Autarch

We are the only things in the universe, as far as we know, which make up and tell each other stories. We are homo narrans

Does this serve some instrumental purpose that is opaque to us but may one day be figured out? Is it a mere epiphenomenon of our brain development and evolutionary background? Is it a gift with which we have been endowed by God, so that we might do him proper homage as the original creator - and hence storyteller - who began telling the tale of the universe at the dawn of time? Or all (or none) of the above?

In a sense it doesn't matter: suffice to say, when you're telling somebody a story, you are engaging in possibly the most uniquely human activity there is - even more so than music or the visual arts, which the behaviour of other animal species can sometimes approximate. Reading and writing fiction is not frivolous, time-wasting frippery. (Unless Louise Mensch is involved.) It's what makes us us.

I prefer to think of stories as the way we make sense of what it is to be human. For whatever reason, whether through a blessing or a curse, we are engaged in that project from the moment we are born until the moment we die, though none of us chooses it. If we attend to the matter of being human carefully enough, we may get some of the way towards a conclusion - though, as is the case with any conclusion really worth making, we could never state it explicitly. Stories, then, are a means of attending - a method by which we can hold up some aspect of human life to the light, turn it this way and that between forefinger and thumb, and see what we can see within it. We rarely get this opportunity in our real lives, because we are caught up in the business of living them. It is only in moments of quiet repose, when writing, reading (or hearing) a story, that we get the space in which to do it. And the fact that it happens obliquely, through what is in essence a metaphor that whispers its meaning to us without our conscious minds often even hearing, is only what gives it its power. 

(I can think of no better illustration of why "the human brain is like a computer" is an utterly foolish way to think about ourselves than reflecting that, of all the works on politics, political theory and political philosophy I have read, it is Turgenev's Fathers and Sons that stands out head and shoulders above the rest in the understanding I feel it has given me about political belief. A computer would understand politics by reading a textbook on politics. We understand it best through stories - and the madness of our current politics is surely in large part due to the decline of reading of serious novels and biographies.)

If stories are the most uniquely human activity there is, then playing RPGs takes on additional importance. Unlike any other form of storytelling, a D&D campaign is both shared, and unpredictable. One doesn't just attend to what Dickens, Chaucer, Vance or Helprin has gleaned about this business of being human. One attends to what one's friends make of it, around a table, with beer. Done right, this gives it even more potency. It is storytelling squared

A word of warning, though. The minute an author tells himself, "I'm going to explore what it is to be human" rather than just setting out to write an interesting story, or the minute a reader approaches a book thinking "This will give me profound insights", the magic quickly dissipates. The same is true of D&D. Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man - and there are orcs out there with stuff that needs taking.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

LESS THAN 48 HOURS REMAIN

Only 46 hours remain for you to back the first issue of In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard. Featuring contents as advertised, plus "The Devil in the Land of the Rushes", a weird science fantasy hexmap from yours truly. 

That is all. Fly, my pretties. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

How Your Favourite Authors Cheat, Why That's OK, and Why Every DM Should Too

[Warning: this entry contains mild spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire and The Book of the New Sun.]

When reading an intricately-plotted novel, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling intimidated by the author's great intellect and technical skill. How can this author have planned this all out in advance?

The truth of the matter is, it is almost certainly the case that the story was largely made up as the writer went along. (If memory serves, Bernard Cornwell and Kurt Vonnegut are notable exceptions.) They have followed Humpty Dumpty's advice and begun at the beginning and kept going until they have got to the end, and then stopped. The intricate plotting really just comes from the author using what he has already written as seeds for future plot developments ("I know, wouldn't it be interesting if the lady in the red hat from way back in Chapter Two turned out to be the sister of the dwarf who I've just written into Chapter Nine?"), and then going back and ret-conning things later to keep things tidy. It's a product of being constantly attentive to what one has written and how it might tie into what one is writing, or imagining, now - coming up with interesting premises, situations and characters and then making connections between them as one goes.

Think, for example, of Dr Talos and Baldanders in The Book of the New Sun. I don't care how much has been read into that book, or Gene Wolfe's writing process, but you will have a hell of a job convincing me that those two didn't just appear as interesting figments of the imagination to begin with ("Wouldn't it be cool if Severian ended up in cahoots with a fox-like playwright and his giant companion?"), who Wolfe later on decided to bestow with much greater significance during the course of the writing of what became The Sword of the Lictor. He didn't plot out the entirety of their role before sitting down to begin the first sentence of The Shadow of the Torturer. He wove it into the telling of the story as it unfolded in the course of the writing. Once it was clear who Baldanders really was, and he had completed his first run-through of what would become the final version of the book, Wolfe then presumably went back and made all the necessary amendments in the rewrite so you couldn't see the "join". 

Think also of Tyrion killing Tywin Lannister towards the end of A Storm of Swords. Did George RR Martin have it in mind that would happen at the start of writing A Game of Thrones? Almost certainly not. The idea that Tyrion might end up killing Tywin may have crept up on him gradually over the course of writing the first drafts of the books, or occurred to him in a flash of insight, but it would have been something that emerged from the story - and how the relationship between those two characters, and the characters themselves, had developed in Martin's mind - during the initial writing process.

What seems like very clever plotting, in other words, is clever, but it is really better described as clever rereading and rewriting. As readers, it is very easy to forget we are not reading the story as the writer wrote it. We are reading the final product of a long process of rewriting and editing: the final version that is presented to the world, not the first draft that was 100,000 words too long and will forever remain locked in the author's attic.

It helps to bear this in mind as a DM. The idea that one could plot out "an adventure" in advance (except for a very simple and boring railroad), or could fill in all the details of a campaign setting before play commences, is a pie-in-the-sky. As with writing a novel, DMing is really an iterative process - it's just that while an author merely riffs on his own ideas, a DM can also riff on those of the players. Events transpire not because they were carefully detailed back before the start of the campaign itself. They transpire because the interesting locations and NPCs the DM has come up with, and the PCs' interactions with them, bring about connections in his mind. It's not that Steffi the Orc was intended to be the PCs' arch enemy all along. It's that Steffi the Orc was captured by the PCs after the rest of her companions were killed in a random encounter, and she was then released, and the DM thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting if she decided to get her revenge? And wouldn't it be nice if she teamed up with Cedric, the hireling the PCs kicked out of their party for stealing, after finding him wandering in the wilderness? And wouldn't it be good if the two of them decided to burgle the PCs' treasure stash while they were away...?"

The exercise comes, in other words, not from pre-plotting, but plotting as a continuous process or flow.

[I am running a Kickstarter throughout April. You can read more about it, and back it, here.]

[I also did a nice interview with the ever-interesting Solomon VK of Worldbuilding & Woolgathering here. You will find it relevant to your interests.]

Friday, 22 April 2022

Books that I like in theory but dislike in practice

The title of this entry is probably self-explanatory, but in case it isn't: there are some books that are recommended to you again and again over the course of your life, or which you see described in glowing terms on repeated occasions, and which you feel very strongly that you ought to like...but really do not care for. 

Here is a non-exhaustive list of mine:

  • Little, Big by John Crowley is really the paradigm case. A series of worlds, each contained within one another like Russian dolls, at the heart of which is a faerie realm, and the plot revolves around a house that has been built so as to contain a portal into that realm? I want to read that book very much. Just not the version of it that John Crowley ended up writing. The experience of hearing about Little, Big is one of intrigue and wonder. The actual experience of reading Little, Big is like that of having been dropped into a tin of treacle and being aware that the only way to stop oneself from drowning is to stop struggling and give up, then await rescue. 
  • Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I have made several running jumps at beginning this series, but the fact of the matter is that I just do not like Stephenson's prose - which somehow manages to be  both smarmy and bland - in any of its iterations. I'm willing to believe that it is all marvellously complex, interesting, insightful and immersive - for some people. I'm afraid I'm not one of them.
  • Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. Some books are difficult - indeed, some are nigh on impenetrable - but you feel it is worth the struggle: The Critique of Pure Reason, Thoughts on Machiavelli, the Oresteia, The Mabinogion, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa... many others spring to mind. Books that you may not fully understand, or feel as though you do not, but which nonetheless seem enriching - as though the act of trying to understand them has made you more intelligent. Mason & Dixon belongs in the opposite category: books which are both difficult and substantively slight, so that at a certain point you feel as though to read on would be to somehow damage your soul - like being forced to do a job which is both boring and actively bad for you all at once.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey. Whenever anybody tells me I should read this, which has happened to me more than a handful of times, I smile politely and say something like, "Sounds interesting" - but deep down inside I am crossing them off my Christmas card list forever, and quite possibly plotting their murder. This is a bad, bad book, though once again the thumbnail description - it's credible semi-hard SF in which humans have only just about colonised the solar system - attracts me. 
  • Steven Erikson's Malazan stuff. I am persuaded Erikson can write. I am also persuaded his books are probably the best modern epic fantasy has to offer. And the premise - turning epic fantasy to 11 (no, to fucking 12) with a plot of Byzantine complexity spanning millennia - is one I can thoroughly support. I dipped into House of Chains and really enjoyed it for the first two-thirds or so before it began to get samey and hard to follow. But I have tried to start Gardens of the Moon several times and found it so terribly po-faced that it is beyond cringe - like I would rather crawl into the nearest bin than have to go on reading it. 
  • Anything of the Iain M. Banks SF books. I've tried. God knows, I've tried. Is it just that I find the whole idea of the Culture to be stultifyingly dull, or is it just the mundanity of Banks' writing? Then again, why discriminate? It can be, and probably is, both.

What's on yours? 

[I am running a Kickstarter throughout April. You can read more about it, and back it, here.]

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Demonic Incursions and Other Shenanigans in the Relationship Hexmap

Years ago (11 years ago - just let that sink in) I wrote an entry about using a hexmap to plot out interpersonal relationships. I deployed this system informally for a Cyberpunk 2020 game I ran for some time, but otherwise never did anything with it.

The basic idea behind the relationship hexmap was coming up with a visual way to keep track of the social dynamics between NPCs. I'm not sure it is actually a great way of doing that, but it is worth fiddling around with. Have a look at this example (and excuse crappy visuals and silly names):


So: blue blobs are physical locations which connect NPCs. Green blobs are NPCs. If I had PCs in there, they would be purple or some other colour, but PCs complicate matters a bit too much. 

The Blue Room is a bar; Frasier, Eric the Red, Miss Moss and Temujin are regulars at it. They are connected to each other through the bar. 

The Art School is an art school; the Cathedral is a cathedral. Same idea.

The circle of people around the Art School (students and teachers) is connected to the circle around the Cathedral (church officials, parishioners, etc.) because Swedish Amanda is a sometime lover of Vivaldi. And it is also connected to the Blue Room because Billy Bob and Caligula have hated each other since they were childhood "friends", and Caligula happens to be married to Miss Moss, who goes to the Blue Room a lot.

Bill and Wendy are a married couple who are otherwise not connected to the other NPCs in the chart.

In the bottom right are Jeremy's gang - a bunch of hoodlums with their eponymous leader. 

Now, the most obvious way of using something like this (I emphasise that I'm aware this is all rather half-baked) seems to me to be to track relationships in an investigative kind of game, whether a police procedural, a Call of Cthulhu style paranomal investigation affair, or whatever. The PCs encounter Vivaldi and ask him questions and pretty soon they're led to Diana Ross and hence the Cathedral, and also perhaps to Swedish Amanda and thereby the Art School and that circle. As it becomes necessary the hexmap expands in size and more and more people are added.

Another use for it, however, might be to function as a visual aid or reference for running a "demonic incursion" type campaign in a location not amenable to geographic representation.

Imagine for the sake of illustration the campaign is about a cell of madmen, eccentrics and weirdos who have discovered that sinister alien presences are manifesting themselves in their local city. One could deploy a method similar to that I advocated here and in the follow-up here, but transposed to an abstract non-physical "map" like the relationship hexmap above. So, what you would do is list the locations and NPCs present on the map in a table, like so:

Dice

Hex

1

0203 Temujin

2

0302 Frasier

3

0303 The Blue Room

4

0307 Vivaldi

5

0308 The Cathedral

6

0309 Bishopy McBishopface

7

0402 Eric the Red

8

0403 Miss Moss

9

0404 Caligula

10

0406 Swedish Amanda

11

0407 Diana Ross

12

0408 Woolly Mammoth

13

0505 Billy Bob

14

0506 The Old Monkey

15

0510 Aragorn

16

0601 Bill

17

0604 Karl

18

0605 Art School

19

0606 Bartholomew

20

0608 The Whisperer

21

0609 Jeremy

22

0701 Wendy

23

0705 The Silver Fox

24

0706 Dorcas

25

0709 Cthulhu

26

0710 The Artful Dodger

Now, instead of generating a "demonic incursion" and locating it on a physical hexmap, you instead associate the "alien presence" you'll be generating on your cool random table with a location or person. So, let's imagine your "alien presence" generator looks something like this:

D6

Base type

Number

Ability Orientation

Motive

Special

1

“Gray”

Single

Combat

Kidnap

Rivalry with other presences

2

Insectoid

Psionic

Raid

Limited time

3

Blob

Pair or small group

Mutation

Breeding

Wounded or sickening

4

Monstrous

Possession

Personality stealing

Driven insane by Earth conditions

5

Robotic

Large group

Manipulation

Study

Non-corporeal

6

Shapeshifter

Confusion

Settlement

Must eat continually to survive


And you roll for your "alien presence" a blobby thing in a pair or small group, oriented towards confusion, with the motive of settlement, and having been driven insane by Earth conditions. And then let's imagine that you roll a 26 for its association, and thus come up with the Artful Dodger. This now gives you the hook: the member of Jeremy's Gang in question sighted these strange presences (maybe the cellar of a house he was burgling) and they deployed their confusion-causing powers to make him blind and scramble his power of speech. He has turned up at Jeremy's hideout and the other members of the gang can't figure out what's wrong with him. Knowing the PCs, they get in touch and ask them to investigate. 

And so on.

C+ so far - must try harder. But I think the effort could be worth it.

[I am running a Kickstarter throughout April. You can read more about it, and back it, here.]