Sunday 27 February 2022

"He Was Killed in the Very First Month"

By coincidence, I happened to be reading Boys in Zinc during the days in which war engulfed Ukraine. So titled because of the Soviet practice of sending dead soldiers home from Afghanistan in sealed zinc coffins, the book is a vast collection of records of oral interviews Svetlana Alexievich conducted with soldiers, wives, mothers, doctors and nurses about their experiences of war. Its poignancy is made almost aching at the thought of what the families of soldiers on both sides are experiencing as we speak.

From an interview with 'a wife':

There's a big photograph of him hanging on the wall. "Get papa down for me," my daughter asks. "I'm going to play with papa." She surrounds the photograph with her toys and talks to him. I'm putting her to bed at night and she asks: "Which part of papa did they shoot at? Why did they choose our papa?" I take her to kindergarten. In the evening, when I have to take her home, she bawls, "I won't leave until papa comes to get me. Where's my papa?" I don't know how to answer her. How can I explain? I'm only twenty-one myself.

By 'a mother':

They brought him back ten days later. For all those ten days I'd dreamed that I'd lost something and I couldn't find it. For all those ten days the kettle wailed in the kitchen. I put it on to make tea and it sang in different voices. I like houseplants: I have lots of them on the windowsills, on the wardrobe, on the bookshelves. Every morning when I watered them, I dropped the pots. They slid out of my hands and broke. The air was filled with the smell of damp earth. 

Three cars stopped in front of the building: two army jeeps and an ambulance. I guessed immediately that they were coming to us, to our home. I went to the door myself and opened it. "Don't tell me! Don't tell me anything! I hate you! Just give me my son's body. I'll bury him my way. Alone..."

And another:

On 4 March I had a dream. A big field, with white flashes all over it. Something exploded, and there were long white streamers of smoke. My Sasha was running, running like mad, tearing along...He had nowhere to hide. A flash on one side, then on the other. I was running after him, trying to catch up with him. I wanted to be in the front, with him behind me. Once, when he was little, we got caught in a thunderstorm out in the country. I covered him with by body and he scrambled about underneath me, like a little mouse: "Mama, save me!" But now I couldn't catch up with him. He was so tall and his strides were so very, very long. I was running as hard as I could. I thought my heart would burst. But I couldn't catch up with him...

The front door banged and my husband came in. My daughter and I were sitting on the sofa. He walked straight across the room to us in his shoes and coat and hat. He'd never done that before. He was always so particular, because he'd been in the army all his life. He had to have discipline in everything. He walked over and went down on his knees in front of us. "Girls, something terrible has happened." 

Then I noticed there were other people in the hallway. A nurse came in, and a military commissar, teachers from my school, friends of my husband.

"Sashenka! My little boy!" 

It was three years ago. And we still can't open the suitcase with Sasha's things in it. They brought it with the coffin. I think they smell of Sasha.

From a doctor:

The way a man dies isn't anything like in the movies. A man doesn't die like a Stalinist hero - a bullet hits him in the head, he throws up his arms and falls. In reality what happens is this: a bullet hits him in he head, his brains go flying out, and he runs after them - he can run half a kilometre, trying to catch them. It's crazy, way over the top. He runs until physiological death sets in. It would be easier to shoot him that to watch him lying there and listen to him sobbing or begging for death as a release. That's if he has any strength left. Another man can be lying there, and the fear creeps up on him. His heart falters. He shouts and calls for you. You check him and calm him down...But his brain is just waiting for the moment when the man relaxes...Before you can even leave the bed the boy's gone. And he was there just a moment ago.

From a soldier: 

What did I learn there? That good never wins. There's always just as much evil in the world. Man is terrifying. But nature is beautiful.

And, finally, from another:

What is love? I was there at the birth when my wife had our daughter. At moments like that you need the person you're closest to beside you to hold your hand. Now I'd force every male bastard to stand beside a woman's head when she's giving birth, when her legs are splayed out and she's covered in blood and shit. Take a look, you sons of bitches, at the way a child comes into the world. Yet you kill so simply. Killing is easy....A woman isn't like a door you can just walk in and out of.... I've seen. I know now that children are born bright and radiant. They're angels.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Last Chance to Submit

There are about 24 hours left in which to send me submissions for the first volume of In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard. I'll not be reading or looking at anything submitted after midnight UK time on the 15th of February.

You can follow the Kickstarter here. I would expect launch at some point in late March or early April.

I've been extremely impressed with the quality and quantity of submissions and will have my work cut out choosing what to include. If you have sent me something and I haven't replied yet, please don't read anything into it - I've been inundated!

Saturday 12 February 2022

A Philosophical Typology of Elves

Bland modern fantasy elves tend to be depicted merely as living for a bit longer than humans and being a bit sexier. The history of the genre gives us many other, more interesting, archetypes. Let's see if we can catalogue them. 

Tolkien imagined that, granted near-immortality, elves would spend most of their time writing poetry, singing, creating wondrous art, honing their talents, and so on. Let's call this the optimistic elf. It is based on the view that people will set their sights on lofty goals when freed from the burden of time and the pressure to earn a living.

Moorcock satirised the optimistic elf with his decadent variant. This figure appears again and again in his fiction (and his intellectual descendants); the paradigmatic iteration is the Vadhagh of the Corum stories, who are so interested in the contents of their own navels that they fail to notice the world has turned, the barbarians are quite literally at the gates, and their precious cultural achievements will do nothing to protect them from impending doom.

Zelazny's Amberites can be thought of as megalomaniac elves. Given demigod-like power, they deploy it not in the name of art or song, but toward the aim of amassing yet more, and at the expense of their rivals. Their might makes them intolerant of equals; each must strive to be the greatest. 

In M. John Harrison's A Storm of Wings, the Reborn Men of the ancient Earth go slowly mad, whether because of the passage of time itself, or because they have found themselves in a distant future they are not equipped to understand. They are senile elves.

HG Wells' Eloi are dissolute, passive, unintelligent and apathetic; leisure and ease have rendered them both bored and boring, like humanoid cattle. Predating Tolkien, his Eloi feel like their mirror-universe twins - let's call them this archetype the pessimistic elf.

Leonard Nimoy's depiction of Spock is one which I hardly need to describe to you in writing. He was a Vulcan elf.

I'm sure I'm overlooking or forgetting things, but I'm not sure if I have ever encountered what I will call the dark triad elf. (Except perhaps for the drow.) Given a near-infinite lifespan and/or near-infinite leisure, might one become so self-absorbed and so caught up in the pursuit of pleasure - not to mention so psychologically distanced from the generations of short-lived humans living, growing old and dying before one's eyes - as to become narcissistic, even psychopathic? 

Friday 11 February 2022

The Influence of Roguelike Visuals

A player in my regular online game posted some examples of my maps:

The one at the top is a zoomed-in combat map. The one at the bottom is level 2 of the megadungeon they're exploring. 

Roll20 has all kind of fancy functions, but I'm too old now to be bothered how to learn. I would rather just scrawl things on the screen with the rudimentary drawing function. It does what it needs to. And it also, I think, spurs the players to use their imaginations rather than getting caught up in what they can see.

I never really thought of it this way before just now, but looking at these maps of mine with fresh eyes, it seems evident to me that my aesthetic experience of playing and running D&D is very strongly influenced by having wasted vast swathes of my teenage years playing *band games and other roguelikes, squinting at maps like this:

Shorn of box office visuals (or any visuals at all, really), the brain has to make up for it by doing a lot of imaginative legwork. This is the genius of ASCII-based roguelike games, of course: by providing an initially alienating aesthetic, they end up becoming more immersive than the most cutting edge PS5 offering, because you get caught up in a world that is as much, if not more, a product of your own imagination as the designer's. (The additional stimulation to the brain is also partly, I think, what makes them so addictive.) 

The phenomenology of the visualisation of events in an RPG is fascinating to me. When a DM describes to four players a room in a dungeon, each of the five participants will build an image in his or her mind. Usually, this works tolerably well - well enough for everyone to have the same rough idea of where and what everything is. Yet we will never be able to tell how close their independent visualisations are to each other's, or to that of the DM. Every player in every RPG session ever played has created their own independent representation of a particular reality in their own mind, and it is one that can never fully be revealed to anybody but themselves. This is, you know, deep, man. 

Sunday 6 February 2022

Reflections on the Great Orc Debate: Expressionism versus Naturalism and Interesting Orc Types

My previous post provoked largely reasonable debate, proving how old fashioned dialectics can get us to the heart of the matter. I thought it would be interesting to summarise the points on which I think agreement was reached, and where the truth probably lies. People almost never take the effort to take stock after internet debates; let's give it a shot.

  • There is certainly a problem that arises when people adopt a vision of the orc as 'noble savage'. The is far too close to real-world historical conceptions of people living in particular societies, and leads to clear insensitivities.
  • It was probably extremely ill-advised in the first place to have adopted the word 'race' to refer to orcs, elves, dwarves, humans, and the like. And however ill-advised that may have been, it is even more so nowadays when the word has become almost unbearably fraught. 
  • If somebody you're gaming with says something in the game makes them feel uncomfortable, you're probably an arsehole if you keep doing it. As I said back in 2009, almost all gaming advice can be reduced to the simple maxim: Don't be a dickhead.
  • Orcs work really well as a representative of the worst human tendencies (on which more below) - aggression, cruelty, resentment, and so on. Watering that down by trying to make them sympathetic ironically seems to have the result of making it feel 'wrong' to stereotype them as evil, leading to weird discomfort with what is a core element of traditional D&D (killing evil humanoids and/or taking their stuff). 
  • Almost nobody likes racists or wants to be one, so debates should be had in good faith.

What I think this boils down to, to reframe the main point of my previous post, was that if one is to use 'orcs' at all, it is better to do so expressionistically rather than naturalistically. In other words, orcs (like all monsters in general, really) are best thought of as representations or evocations of mood and emotion rather than natural species with genes and psychologies and histories of their own. They're like fairy tale goblins, devils or evil spirits - and not like Klingons. 

Some interesting orc types would therefore be:

  • The pig-faced militarist, embodiment of belligerence and tyrannical discipline, like a hypertrophied perversion of ancient Sparta
  • The aggressor, glorying in violence and self-aggrandisement and worshipping nothing but the principle of might makes right - an embodiment of what people really seem to mean when they talk about 'toxic masculinity' (and in the same sense that Nazism seemed to embody a distortion and glorification of the most negative of male traits, unmoored from any of the positive ones and freed from traditional morality by Nietzschean nihilism) 
  • The dehumaniser, representative of how cruelty develops from conceiving of human life, and certain individual human beings, as lacking in intrinsic value, and therefore fair game for whatever torments one wishes to inflict upon them; these orcs would look upon humans as lacking any inner life or moral worth, and hence as mere playthings (or worse)
  • The resentor. Human beings know love, they know kindness, they know friendship, they know art. The orc does not understand those things, except insofar as it grasps that it will never have them. It embodies spite: it will make us suffer because it can never be what we are.

Add your own.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Racism and Orcs

The latest edition of the Quillette Podcast contains some interesting thoughts and observations about wokeness in D&D, and is worth listening to. The starting point for the conversation is a recent Wired article on 'genetic determinism' in fantasy, with particular reference to orcs. Apparently, some people think there is something 'problematic' (though I'm not sure that particular word appears in the article) about D&D orcs. The logic of the argument is rather hard to follow, but it seems to boil down to unease about the 'racial essentialism' of portraying orcs as indelibly evil (or, for that matter, elves as being into poetry, or dwarves as being into mining). There is felt to be something wrong with this. It's unfathomable to me that anybody could think that imagining there are such things as orcs and imagining they have intrinsically negative characteristics would lead anybody to imagine that the same could be true of human 'races'. But that genuinely does appear to be the implausible argument that is being made: if there are orcs in D&D, and they are evil, people might play D&D and come to believe that human 'races' might be evil, and thereby become racist. Does that sound even remotely realistic to you? 

I've long ago lost interest in the idea of orcs as an adversary monster, along with most of the trappings of high fantasy in general. They're old hat. But the concept of evil entities bent on the violent destruction of humanity clearly has a resonance with us. Calling it 'genetic determinism' is so self-evidently a category error that I find it difficult to process the notion that anybody could be making that argument seriously - but then I force myself to remember there are people in the world who worry about things like whether dragons are physically capable of flying. Nerds can have a really difficult time with expressionism. 

Orcs don't have genes. They are mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'. They're spirits, demons, monsters. This isn't racism. It is quite literally the stuff of which fantasies, myths and legends are made. Why would you want them to be otherwise? 

The other problem, of course, is that even taking the argument on its merits, it makes no sense. Animals which belong to different species are different from one another. It isn't 'genetically essentialist' to say that lions are live in prides whereas leopards are solitary, that crows are more intelligent than wrens, or that ants are social insects whereas spiders generally aren't. It's just fact. So even if one does want to think of fantasy 'races' in the reductive, pseudo-scientific, materialist sort of way that the author of the Wired article clearly does, the problem just isn't a problem in the first place. You're not talking about different types of human. You're talking about different species.

Being charitable, I have no doubt the people who worry about this kind of thing are acting in good faith. Who likes racism? But the idea that one needs to excise orcs from the game, or radically rethink them, because their existence and the fact they are evil might lead people to be racist in the real world is so strange, so melodramatic, so reflective of a complete lack of understanding of basic human psychology, that it beggars belief it would find any credence whatsoever in the world beyond the fever dreams of the most stereotypically, self-parodically woke. It's profoundly odd. 

Tuesday 1 February 2022

The Problem of PC Spending Power

One of the biggest problems with old school D&D (Ron Edwards would probably accuse it of 'incoherence') is that, while it envisions PCs slowly evolving into powerful landowners at higher levels, the truth is that by the time any PC has got to, say, 5th level, he will have so much money that most costs have become trivial and he is able to make huge investments in property and retainers already.

This is not necessarily a problem, of course. But there are ways of limiting the phenomenon - and of making the game world feel richer as a consequence.

1. Thieves

As soon as the PCs become property-owners, they should attract burglars. Perhaps very powerful ones. They will, indeed, become a target for fellow adventurers; you can think of their holdings (inn, holdfast, etc.) as being in a sense like an adventure site for NPCs to potentially plunder. YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF RANDOM BURGLAR TABLES ARE NOT MADE.

2. Inflation

I am not an economist. But I do know that inflation is always and everywhere a gold piece phenomenon.

Imagine you have a village of 1000 souls. According to the Rules Cyclopedia, this will generate 10,000gp worth of GDP (though it doesn't use the term) per month. 

Now imagine a bunch of adventurers arrive after a raid on a nearby megadungeon, with 20,000gp worth of treasure to spend. They will overnight triple the size of the economy. Should all costs therefore not triple in value? In real life inflation is more complicated. But at the level of principle, this simple back-of-the-envelope approach is sufficient.

3. Liquidity

How do the PCs find buyers for non-cash items? Some random pieces of jewellery will cost tens of thousands of gp. Is it likely that our 1000 soul village will have anybody willing or able to buy such an item? The sale of big ticket treasure items should really be an adventure in itself - a search for probably very powerful, very secretive, and very eccentric buyers who might try to trick the PCs, or employ them to acquire more.

4. Scarcity

OK, so the PCs have enough money to hire 500 mercenaries. That's no good to them if there are only 1d6 mercenaries available in town each month, because it's the middle of nowhere. It's very important to establish before the campaign begins what these limitations of scarcity are (how many hirelings are available each month; how much equipment of various kinds is available for purchase each month, etc.), so they exist as a known framework of constraints that you're not introducing just to put the kibosh on the PCs' plans out of spite. 

Add your own!