Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Dealing with Insomnia

Something totally unrelated to RPGs, which I throw out there in case somebody finds it of use.

There was a six-eight month period in my life in which I had very serious insomnia. Throughout that time, I would sleep at best about 2-4 hours for two nights in a row, and then get a good night's sleep on the third night because I would be so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open. The cycle would then resume. (Nobody knows better the tyranny of hope than a chronic insomniac waking up the morning after a good night's sleep.) Some nights I would have literally no sleep at all and have to go to work the next day feeling like I'd just gone 12 rounds with George Foreman. Every evening at around 4pm I would be stricken by pains in my chest, caused by the sheer dread of having to face another night of struggle. You only had to mention the word 'sleep' to me and my heart would start pounding. I was in a very bad place.

I am sure that this situation would have lasted for years if I hadn't come across Guy Meadows's 'Sleep School' approach by sheer accident when browsing in a bookshop. It took a little bit of time to figure out his system, but once I had done, it helped enormously. I still do get the odd bad night here or there - maybe once every three months or so. But when I do, I know what to do.

Most sleep therapists - there are many who post online - recognise that chronic insomnia is the result of associating being in bed with being awake. It begins because, for whatever reason, you can't sleep for a few nights. Gradually, you get more and more used to getting into bed and being awake as your brain starts to associate bed time with wakefulness. This causes frustration and anger every time you get into bed, which makes you even more alert. As a result, your brain begins to more and more strongly associate being in bed not with being asleep, but with being restless, irritated, and wide-awake. 

The remedy most sleep therapists suggest is to get out of bed when you can't sleep, in order to break that cycle. If you get into bed and can't sleep for, say, 10-15 minutes, they recommend you get up and do something boring until you start feeling sleepy, and then go back to bed. Rinse and repeat. Eventually you will fall asleep, at which point you can start trying to form a virtuous circle and re-associate being in bed with sleeping.

This approach never worked for me. I would get into bed each night practically counting down the seconds until 15 minutes were up and I could get out of bed again. And I hated getting out of bed, almost as much as I hated being in it. It was torture.

Meadows's approach is counter-intuitive. It involves embracing the feeling of being in bed and not being able to sleep. His insight - and, speaking as an insomniac in remission, it is a profound insight - is that the real problem most insomniacs face is anxiety about lying in bed, awake. If one can accept having to lie in bed, awake, then it gradually ceases to be a cause of anxiety. Once it ceases being a cause of anxiety, the anxiety itself loses its power, and one can gradually thereby begin to sleep normally again. His method, then, is not designed to help you to sleep. In fact, he strongly advises against insomnia cures which advertise themselves as helping you to sleep - at best they will become crutches that you have to rely on forever, but often they will actually just make things worse by resulting in you getting yet more frustrated at their failure to work. No - his method deploys a range of techniques designed to help you accept being in bed, awake (and also to accept being tired the next day, doo). Once you can accept being in bed, awake, and being tired the next day, anxiety about those things loses its grip, and so does insomnia as a result.

The method, then, is very simple - although meditation is indispensable to it, and you have to be prepared to do the hard miles in that regard. You go to bed like a normal sleeper (say, at 11pm). You get up in the morning like a normal sleeper (say, at 6.30am). And you stay in bed all the way through - no matter how tough that may feel at first. And you learn to accept being awake, and feeling like shit the next day. Gradually - although it doesn't take that long; weeks rather than months - you find yourself getting back into a normal sleeping pattern. All of a sudden, you find yourself sleeping every other night. Then for two good nights in a row, and one bad. Then for three good nights in a row, and one bad. And so on. Slowly but surely, you get there.

Partly this is because you are very gently depriving yourself of sleep. A big problem insomniacs face is what I described at the start of this post - you sleep terribly for two nights, but on the third night, get this blissful 12 hour catch-up binge sleep. The issue then is that because you've slept so long, you're then not tired enough to sleep properly when you go to bed the following night, and the frustration begins again. By sticking to a roughly 7-8 hour schedule, you avoid that. 

But that's not the real reason Meadows' method works. The real reason it works is meditation. When you get into a habit of meditative practice (it doesn't have to be a huge amount - 10 minutes, twice a day) your brain begins to function differently. What you begin to realise is that your conscious mind is separate from the parts of your brain that deal with emotion, memory, personality, impulse, and so on, and does not have to be bound by them. Your conscious mind can in fact stand aside from, and observe, those other elements of your psyche as they go about their business, free from their influence and control. You gain freedom of action - freedom from yourself

Meditation works for insomniacs not because it helps you relax and go to sleep. Far from it (and Meadows cautions very strongly against this). It works because it allows you to observe yourself becoming anxious and frustrated, when getting into bed, or lying there, awake and unable to sleep. In observing yourself feeling those feelings, your conscious mind frees itself from them and you can control your behaviour. You gain the ability to elect to stay in bed regardless of how it makes you feel. Meditation doesn't diminish the feeling. It just causes it to lose its power to dictate how your conscious mind responds.

It is important to meditate properly, and Meadows provides a range of techniques for this, but I found the old Zen trick of concentrating on breathing works best. Just close your eyes, sit still, and focus on the feeling of your breath as it goes in and out of your nostrils, or between your lips. Whenever your thoughts stray, acknowledge they have strayed, and refocus on breathing. They will stray more than once a second. This is normal. You are not meditating to relax. You are meditating to train your conscious mind to observe yourself thinking, and feeling, and in the act of observance, gain distance. Once you have distance, you will be freed from unbidden thoughts and feelings. You will still get into bed and think "Argh, another night!" You will still get into bed with your heart pounding with anxiety. But you will be able to observe those feelings and get into bed anyway - and stay there until morning. Pretty soon, you will end up falling asleep when you do.

If you do have chronic insomnia and this strikes a chord, try it. My rule of thumb: never, ever meditate in bed. The temptation is to try to use it as a relaxation device, which it isn't. Do it at set times during the day when you're unlikely to nod off. And good luck. Guy Meadows's 'Sleep School' stuff is out there if you Google it - and he has online courses and therapy sessions, although the book itself seemed to work for me on its own. Don't expect it to work straight away (although it might). Once I had started taking every element of it seriously, especially the meditation, was when it really clicked for me - after about a month. And no, I've been paid nothing to advertise!

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Cover Art - In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard

This is a prototype for the cover of the first issue of In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, by the mad genius Matt Adams. I got excited and had to share it. What can I say? Everything about this picture makes me smile.

A reminder that you can follow the Kickstarter and be notified of launch here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thirdbluewizard/in-the-hall-of-the-third-blue-wizard

Sunday, 16 January 2022

There Are Neither Gates Nor Keepers


[T]he outside world is subject to the law of imperfection; there it happens time and again that one who gets bread is one who does not work, that one who sleeps gets in greater abundance than one who labours. In the outward world everything belongs to whoever has it, the outward world is subject to the law of indifference and the genie of the ring obeys the one who wears it, whether he be a Noureddin or an Aladdin, and whoever holds the world's treasures does so however he came by them.

It is otherwise in the world of spirit. Here there prevails an eternal divine order, here it does not rain on the just and the unjust alike, here the sun does not shine on both good and evil, here only one who works gets bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest, only one who descends to the underworld saves the loved one, only one who draws the knife gets Isaac. He who will not work does not get bread, but will be deluded, as the gods deluded Orpheus with an airy figure in place of the beloved, deluded him because he was tender-hearted, not courageous, deluded him because he was a lyre-player, not a man.

-Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

We hear a lot about 'gatekeeping' in the world of RPGs. There are, apparently, keepers of gates, and they exercise a great and arbitrary power over all they survey - a complete discretion that allows them to identify those that they like, the sheep, who they usher through into their green pasture; and the goats, who they hate, and keep outside in the barren wasteland. 

The phrase is most often deployed when it comes to publishing. The reason that one fails to find an audience, to 'make it', to achieve greatness, is due to having been singled out as a goat by the gatekeepers, and all that one can then do is to look plaintively in from beyond the fence at the sheep in the green pasture, who work tirelessly to promote one another's work and grow fat and hearty on the juicy wet grass. You, the goat, must live off scraps in the wilderness; you, the goat, are an outsider; you, the goat will never amount to anything because you can only be the vector of forces beyond your control.

But it is also sometimes even a complaint when it comes to the mere playing of the game. The sheep, it is said, exclude the goats. The sheep do not like anybody coming along and disrupting how things are done in their pasture. The sheep are against change. The sheep discourage, dissuade, bully and ostracise, and thus exert an iron grip on participation in the hobby.

Both of these myths are, of course, absurd. There is no 'gate' when it comes to publishing, not since the internet blew the whole thing apart in the 2000s, and there is nothing stopping anybody picking up a copy of D&D and playing it with their mates - you can even buy it in Waterstones these days, and in the unlikely event you can't figure out how it works for yourself, you can go on YouTube and watch probably hundreds of millions of hours of videos explaining how. Ultimately, there is nothing stopping anybody doing anything they put their minds to, except for their own inertia, shyness, lack of motivation, busy lifestyle, and so on, and those ought not to be considerations at all.

That is not to say that there is no injustice or unfairness in the way in which the world arranges itself. In publishing, of course, there is a bias towards incumbents that can be hard to overcome for newcomers in a crowded marketplace. And there are, it is certainly true, a number of demagogues out there with large followings who are keen to pontificate about badwrongfun and insist on their own variation of the One True Way. 

But Kierkegaard is instructive in this regard. As our Danish friend points out, the acknowledged and unavoidable unfairness of the outward world is immaterial to what happens within us. We have no control over the world, but we do have control over ourselves. And within those limits, we can elect to work, or not work; to descend to the underworld, or fail to; to draw the knife, or refuse. We cannot bend the deterministic world to our will. What we can do is elect to exercise our will, or not. Faced with the fact that doing something is difficult, we can either try to do it anyway, or not do it at all. Which of these is better? Will we act? Or delude ourselves into thinking we can receive 'bread' without endeavouring to act in the first place?

There are neither gates, nor keepers. But even if there were, their existence would have no effect on one's own decision to do whatever one wished. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Dungeon Keying Theory: On Background Information and Implied History

A good megadungeon (except for the purest 'funhouse' affairs) will generally have a backstory, and this can and should bleed into the contents, giving the PCs the sense that they are exploring a place with a history, whose rooms were built and used for particular purposes.

The way this typically works for me is that I begin with a broad theme or collection of themes for each dungeon level based on the overall concept for the dungeon, and then use this to map the contents based on their original purpose. I then go back and add layers of additional 'history' - including ruination, entropy, rehabitation or repurposing by intruders, and so on - to give a feeling of great age and the passing of long eons.

For example, let's imagine I was making a megadungeon inside a place called Bald Mountain. I might decide that the first level comprises a network of tunnels and chambers constructed by a cult of dwarves who worshipped the Crow God. I would map the level accordingly, and include, amongst other things, shrines, chapels, halls of worship, sacristies, monks' and novices' dormitories, and so on. I would then plot out areas that had collapsed or been ransacked; that had been taken over by vagrants; that still contained the original (undead) inhabitants; that had become infested by crow demons; that were now being used as hideouts for outlaws, and so on. And I would be careful to include room contents that, here and there, hinted at the respective chambers' original uses.

I expect most people do this when designing a megadungeon and that you will instantly identify with what I'm talking about. It's good practice, because it gives the dungeon environment depth; the players feel like they are in a living, breathing world, rather than simply interacting with something the DM has jotted down on a piece of paper, even if the truth of course is much closer to the latter. Importantly, it doesn't particularly matter whether or not, or to what extent, the PCs piece together the backstory and history of the place they are exploring - it's just better if the feeling is communicated that it has a reality of its own.  

The aim, in other words, is not necessarily to put in place enough clues that the players could, like explorer-scholars, piece together the entire history of the place they are exploring. (Though that would be cool.) It is, rather, to make it feel to them as though their PCs inhabit an actual place.

When running one's own dungeon, a lot of this 'history' takes place in the DM's own head or notes, and it doesn't particularly matter how it is presented in that sense, but in published materials, the question becomes: how much of this history should be revealed in the dungeon key, and how much should be left implicit? Compare the following:

57. A hexagonal pit, 9' deep and 6' across, lies at the end of the crawlspace. Its walls are completely smooth and it cannot be climbed unaided. At the bottom lies a skeleton, dressed in fragments of what was once a red tunic, and it can be seen to be clutching a short leather tube. Close inspection at the bottom of the pit will reveal its legs are broken in several places, and the tube contains a thin vial with a greenish yellow gas inside. If smashed, the vial will release poison into a 10' cube (save vs poison or choke to death in d3 rounds). 


57. A hexagonal pit, 9' deep and 6' across, lies at the end of the crawlspace. It was once an oubliette into which prisoners were cast for one purpose: to die. Its walls are completely smooth and it cannot be climbed unaided. At the bottom lies a skeleton, dressed in fragments of what was once a red tunic, and it can be seen to be clutching a short leather tube. Close inspection at the bottom of the pit will reveal its legs are broken in several places, and the tube contains a thin vial with a greenish yellow gas inside. If smashed, the vial will release poison into a 10' cube (save vs poison or choke to death in d3 rounds). This is the remains of an assassin who was once sent to kill the High Priest of the Crow God, but was captured and thrown into the pit after having his legs shattered by guards. He starved to death and has remained there ever since the fall of the temple.

The former seems, to my eye, to be superior, because it hints at there being a history to the dungeon without crowding out the DM's own ideas as to what it might have been. It has the virtue of being shorter. And it will also undoubtedly have the same effect on the players - the aim, remember, being to make them feel as though the place their PCs are exploring is a real one and not just a bunch of stuff to entertain them for a 3 hour session. 

The ideal for published materials, in other words, is I think to have backstory and history being for the most part implicit, unstated or hidden, rather than described explicitly. Your observations are welcome!

Monday, 10 January 2022

Violence and Its Uses

I have violence on the brain tonight, having just finished reading Rene Girard's The Scapegoat, and having been reminiscing with a friend about the film Akira and the relentlessness of the bloodshed in it. (I made the observation that there is barely a scene in the film that doesn't contain blood. This may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) 

Without wanting to dwell too much on Girard, it is undoubtedly true that there can be something cathartic in acts of violence, and also unifying. This is what gives it its hideous appeal. One of the most violent things I have ever witnessed happened in a late night fast food outlet in my home town, when I was back visiting after years away. It was about 2am, the nearby nightclub had closed, and everybody had spilled out into the street and thronged into the burger joint in pursuit of grease and carbs. 

My home town is small enough for most people to know everybody by a few degrees of separation; being at the end of a peninsula and somewhat insular as a result, it also has its own slightly distinctive variant of the local accent. Outsiders are easy to identify. And one of them was indeed identified in the midst of the crowd. Having got into an altercation with a local, this unfortunate fellow was then rounded upon by twenty or thirty people, bundled out of the burger joint, and had the shit kicked out of him. He eventually stumbled off into the night absolutely covered in blood. I remember at the time thinking: this is basically chimpanzees, but wearing jeans.

What gave the event its Girardian twist was the way the tribe was unified in this persecution of the outsider. In the aftermath of the violence, there was euphoria in the air. For a brief period, we were all one, basking in our collective victory. All it had needed was for somebody to be singled out for a beating, and it was like flicking a switch: we had become a hive mind. More interestingly, the aggression that had been brimming (fifty or more drunk people ramming themselves cheek by jowl, stinking and sweaty, into a tiny enclosed space, elbowing each other and bellowing for attention from the staff) was totally diffused after the fight. Even those, such as myself, who had merely watched passively from the sidelines, felt ourselves blissfully released from that sense of rising tension. All we had needed was a sacrifice. 

Another feature of violence is its capacity to close chapters and open new ones. Think of a boxing match. Think of the way the mutual antagonism grows in the build up to the fight, and the way that it is suddenly dispelled when the bout is over - the way the relationship between the two participants is forever, fundamentally, visibly transformed from that moment onwards. (Anyone who has ever done any combat sports or martial arts will have experienced something of this.) Think of the number of playground fights you witnessed as a kid, in which enemies became, if not friends, then respectful rivals in the aftermath. Think of the number of films you have seen in which violence has been the climax of an act, or indeed of the whole story. Think of how you felt afterwards, if you've ever hit someone. With every act of violence, there is a clearly delineated 'before' and 'after', and however that 'after' takes shape, it is always different to what was before.

Violence in RPGs also has these dynamics, doesn't it? It unifies the players, giving them a sense of common purpose, and can often serve to bring everybody together when they have become slightly bored, antsy, distracted, or have been pursuing different agendas for too long. In the aftermath of combat (assuming they win), there is often a sensation of simmering tension having been released. And it also often has the feeling of closing chapters and opening new ones. The moment after combat is like an interval at the theatre: a pause, a time to take stock, to relax, to look at things in a new light. It shakes things up, and the way in which they rearrange themselves is very often rather different to how they were before.

There are times, in other words, when we seem to need our chimp modes to activate. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I've no idea; I make these observations merely as the most armchair-bound of armchair anthropologists. 

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Incomplete Notes on a Yoon-Suin Comic

Some years ago, I was invited to draw up a plan for a Yoon-Suin comic series. The elevator pitch I came up with: It's like Poirot, but in the Yellow City, and Poirot is a slug-man.

The main character was a slug-man (I tested a variety of names; Ui-Pa Wa was the clumsy one I'd settled on) who, perhaps uniquely in the Yellow City, was capable of feeling compassion for humans. He was insufferably arrogant, and a preening dandy, but he had a soft spot for the lower castes, and would turn up somewhat haphazardly to help them solve problems (most of which would involve solving mysteries). 

He had two helpers. One, Drita, was a whip-smart human orphan girl who Ui-Pa Wa had taken under his wing. The other, Tsuktsan, was a dwarf from the distant Mountains of the Moon who Ui-Pa Wa used as a dogsbody, manservant, and bodyguard. When he needed stealth and cunning, Ui-Pa Wa would deploy Drita. When he needed a bull to smash up a china shop, he would deploy Tsuktsan.

There would also be subplots involving Ui-Pa Wa's gradual ostracism from, and conflict with, slug-man high society, due to his distasteful habit of consorting with humans and treating them as near-equals. 

Ui-Pa Wa and his cronies would frequent a Seinfeld-esque tea shop, called The Quiet and Sorrowless Morning. I think I had it in my head that every 'episode' would begin with them sitting around a table there.

The first story involved solving the mystery of a stolen artefact - a hummingbird's tongue which, when uncoiled, would always point itself towards a distant mountain where Outsiders could be found. It was going to be called, 'The Hummingbird's Tongue That Points to a Mountain'.

This project will almost certainly never come to fruition. I put the notes here on my blog in the unlikely event that anybody will have a use for them, or find them amusing. 

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Now Accepting Submissions: Volume 1, In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard

This year I will be launching a new zine, In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard. It is now open for submissions for its first volume (printing to be funded by a kickstarter in spring). 

I copy below the blurb from the Noisms Games website:

In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard is a new magazine which publishes hexmaps, dungeons and adventure sites for ‘old school’ fantasy games; art; and fantasy fiction. 

It seeks to promote the the beautiful, the strange, the heroic, the fantastical, and, above all, the imaginative. 

For submissions, email Noisms Games with your work attached. This should be: 

  • An original hexmap, dungeon or adventure site, accompanied by a fully keyed map (this does not need to be aesthetically pleasing - merely clear and legible), with the minimal stats necessary for use in standard ‘old school’ fantasy games (minimum 2,000/maximum 10,000 words) 
  • An original work of art, in full colour, in at least 300dpi format, for a B5 page (full or half page)
  • An original short work of fantasy fiction (maximum 5,000 words) 

We pay: 

  • £300 for a piece of cover art 
  • £200 for a full-page piece of art 
  • £100 for a half-page piece of art 
  • 2.5p per word for hexmaps, dungeons and adventure sites (no payment is made for the maps themselves) 
  • 3p per word for fiction

Payments will be made within 30 days of acceptance of the final submission and are not contingent on kickstarter funding.

The deadline is February 15th to be included in the first edition.

Monday, 3 January 2022

The Phenomenology of the Longing for Adventure: Belle (Reprise) and the Aesthetic of Rogueishness

Beauty and the Beast may be the most perfect film in cinematic history, and this scene may most perfectly encapsulate one of the purest and best of human emotions - the longing for adventure, or wanderlust:

If an alien came to earth and asked me to demonstrate why it is that human beings set musical accompaniment to drama, I would show them this scene. I can't think of a better specimen to illustrate how music, words and visual performance can combine to both replicate and also simultaneously refine and distil a sensation all at the same time. How could one possibly explain wanderlust in a more accurate way than what is achieved here in a mere minute of screen time? 

This feeling lies at the core of human experience. For where would we be without it? Still scraping bits of flint from the bottom of the Rift Valley to fashion into cutting implements. I certainly felt it as a youngster, dreaming of life beyond the grey limits of the horizons of northwest England, and I feel it still, when I recall the tingling feeling of anticipation when turning up at an airport for an overseas trip, the smell of the freshly cleaned interior of an aeroplane when you first step on board, the excitement of stepping out of the door of a hotel in a foreign city and how it dispels the tiredness of the thousands of miles you have just traversed. 

It's at the core of fantasy fiction too. The genre has from its very beginnings been defined by characters who, whether reluctantly or not, have thrust themselves from the comfortable obscurity of home into the drama and wonder of the Great Beyond. And readers have also traditionally responded to the centrepiece works within the field - whether by David Eddings or Michael Moorcock - because those books have allowed such feelings to be vicariously savoured. You will, I am sure, identify with this. It's certainly why as an adolescent I devoured this stuff by the wheelbarrow, and why I still cast my eye over the Fantasy & SF shelves in bookshops whenever I visit one, hoping to discover something that looks like it will instantiate that feeling. (Though these days, it never seems to.) 

The OSR 'braintrust' rightly, I think, spurned the wide-eyed high fantasy of the late TSR period in favour of a return to OD&D's more down-and-dirty, rogueish roots. One of Zak's best contributions (he did have some) was the observation that this made running an 'old school' game so much more effective and straightforward. But he was hardly alone in noticing that it is so much easier to make a campaign based around player agency if they are greedy tomb-robbers rather than the cast of characters from the latest Wheel of Time knock-off quest novel. The central argument here is simply that if the PCs are down at heel, misbegotten rogues, with the aim of getting rich quick, they do not require the DM to generate a narrative for them to follow - they drive their own agenda. This was contrasted with the Dragonlance approach, still so depressingly common among mainstream published adventures, in which the DM's job was to come up with a complicated 'story' through which to lead the players by the nose. This distinction needed to be drawn, in order really to make clear what the whole point of the OSR was.

However, in overemphasising this aesthetic, let's call it, of rogueishness, the feeling of wanderlust - of playing an RPG as a kind of vicarious exploration of the 'Great Wide Somewhere' - has I think been undersold by what movers and shakers remain in the OSR and its penumbra. This has not been helped by a general preference for dark settings, which one would hardly be interested in exploring for their own sake if one were unfortunate enough to be born into them. The overall effect has often been to make OSR settings and materials feel somewhat cynical and mean-spirited, and out of touch with what makes the very exercise of fantasy so appealing. What has been downplayed is a sense of adventure

We could all use a bit of Belle in our lives. Capturing that sense of wanderlust is something I want to bring to the table (both figuratively and literally) in the year to come.