Thursday 31 March 2022

RPGs as Sense Making

One of the worst aspects of modern life - and a tendency which I very often find myself displaying to my own immsense chagrin - is the way in which the ubiquity of information gives rise to epistemic arrogance. We are such immense know-alls. We drown ourselves in podcasts, op-ed pieces, tweets and blog posts, and convince ourselves that this gives us any sort of expertise in how the world "really is". What's worse is that (as we all probably know somewhere in our psyches), so much of this material - indeed, almost all of it - is produced by pseuds like ourselves; journalists who just happen to be really good at gathering bits and pieces of information like magpies and then spinning them into narratives that conveniently confirm perfectly the biases of the reader. 

This is driving us all mad (again, as I think all of us know); it makes us angry, fragmented, polarised and insufferably sure about how brilliantly correct our opinions are. Worse, though, it means we actually understand the underlying reality even less. 

It's always difficult to discuss Iain McGilchrist, because his work defies easy summary and is so straightforwardly misrepresented. This interview, though, is a good primer: One of the many important themes in McGilchrist's work is that reality is really only rendered knowable through attending to context and contingency, in the widest scope: any "thing" exists within the context of literally everything else, and therefore one can only really know it by seeing it in its relationship to all other things. One does not understand anything by extricating it from context - one understands through context. 

This means that understanding is not an act of superficial reasoning or abstract study, but rather has to be embodied, intuited, concrete. One does not really get at the underlying reality by thinking about it explicitly. One gets at it through intuition born of experience. And by emphasising the former (abstract reason) and dismissing the latter (tacit knowledge), we actually understand the world much less. 

This is why I think the humanities are so important: they situate knowledge within something (a book, a poem, a piece of music, a work of art) that can only be experienced, being embodied, and which can only be understood tacitly, being opaque to rational explanation. It is through our experience of the arts that we really come to know what this business of being a human being is really all about. It expresses truths not through logic but by making us inhabit them, and thus helps us to truly see something like the whole.

RPGs are not an exception to this. Reading and playing them literally helps us to understand the world, in the truest sense, better. And this in turn means that those of us who are engaged in the hobby, as with all hobbies, are engaged in a pursuit of "sense making" that is much more significant - and useful - than a million Sam Harris podcasts or Substack newsletters (and which is all the more profound for the fact that it is entirely implicit and unintentional). 

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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

Wednesday 30 March 2022

In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard - KickStarter Launch

Noble Reader,

I humbly inform you that the KickStarter for my zine, In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, is now live. 

Do you want a zine packed with nigh on 55,000 words of gaming material (hexmaps and dungeons) and short fiction, not to mention lots of pretty art? Then back it.

Do you want to support creators by funding a publication that pays fair prices for contributions? Then back it.

Do you like blue wizards? Then back it.

Do you hate blue wizards? Then back it as well.

Do you like wells at the end of the world, offspring of siphoned demons, cerulean valleys, moonrhythm mires, hollow tombs, black pyramids, and marvellous births? Then back it.

Do you believe flumphs are sadly forgotten and in need of some TLC in game form? Then back it.

Do you like Matt Adam's art and want to see his Top Secret back cover? Then back it.

Do you want all of your wildest dreams to come true? Then back it.

Do you want good karma? Then back it and also share the link.

You can find the link here:

Yours Sincerely,


"There Are No Other Countries Like Spain," Robert Jordan said


Of all the countries I have visited, Spain is the one that most fascinates, that most excites, that most seduces, that most appals - and that best avoids easy description. A country in love like no other with both beauty and death, and which marries them both. Not a country, but a continent in miniature, where one can go from lust celtic green to a desert of vultures in a journey of a day. A land of hunters, conquistadors, and artists. Of chivalry and machismo and delicate manners. Of Roman ruins and Moorish palaces. Of ancient languages still living; of white churches dark and cool and empty on blisteringly hot days; of snow-capped mountains and orange trees; of songs sung in minor keys; of memories of priests and treasure fleets and crusades. Of Don Quixote and Cortes, Jan Potocki and Joaquin Rodrigo, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Salvador Dali. The word "stereotype" does not fit the images it conjures; one feels history there layered upon itself, over and over, like a great blanket folded one way and another and back again in an endlessly accumulating pile. 

The roots of Spanish history run so deep and draw on layers of earth so rich that one wonders why it is that they have never nourished RPG settings. We have pseudo-Japans, pseudo-Chinas, pseudo-Romes and pseudo-Germanys by the bucketload, but where are the pseudo-Spains? Where are the pre-Roman Spains, the Carthaginian Spains, the Moorish Spains, the Spains of the Reconquista or the high middle ages or the Age of Exploration? Where are the Spains of the Golden Age - or of the Wars of Religion? Above all, where are you Spanish RPG enthusiasts, of whom I know there are many, and why are you not squeezing your wonderful country's history and culture(s) for all the inspiration they are worth? 

Tuesday 22 March 2022

Will AI Change the Hobby?

Somebody posted an excellent comment in reply to my previous post, predicting that the next big 'advance' in RPG play will come from the use of AI. Picture the scene: rather than the DM laboriously keying hexmaps and dungeons, or buying hexmaps and dungeons somebody else has laboriously keyed, he just downloads some software that creates entire settings - nay, worlds - at the push of a mouse button. Every NPC, every lair, every treasure trove, every random encounter table... Different every time, and ready to explore.

AI will, I suppose the argument goes, create our music, our films, our books, our poetry; so why not our campaign settings?

I have no doubt that this kind of thing will become possible, and that it will be a very fun tool to play around with when it does - human input and creativity coming in the form of fiddling with parameters and inputs rather than the nitty gritty of content. But I am not convinced it will supplant the traditional model, for the same reason that radio did not replace books, and TV did not replace radio, and VHS did not replace the cinema, and CDs did not replace vinyl, and so on. New technologies tend to disrupt, but not totally subvert, old ones. And, indeed, they can ultimately give older ways of doing things a new lease of life - as the availability of limitless disposable streaming of music has led, for example, to a mini-stampede to vinyl. 

It is so trite to point out that the OSR was yet another iteration of this phenomenon that it is almost embarrassing to do so, but it is worth reflecting that the movement would probably never have taken off (certainly not with the popularity it did) were it not for the creation of 4e lighting the touchpaper. Advances in gaming technology did not kill 'old school D&D' - they put rocket fuel in its engines.

More broadly, it seems to me that the contemporary popularity of D&D (and it really is popular: lots of people I know, people who are normal and successful and have real jobs and kids and would once have been described as 'cool', will these days openly talk in public about playing the game, which I don't think has ever been true in its history before) has also been given wings by the a reaction against the overwhelming dominance of video games in the broader culture. It's not that people are driven to play D&D by fear and loathing of video games; most people who enjoy the former also enjoy the latter. It's just that D&D's more tactile, meditative, bookish elements are thrown into relief when set against a backdrop of primarily digital pursuits. People go to hobbies like D&D much as beasts flock to a waterhole in the savannah - it's not where they spend all their time, but it's where they go from time to time to slake their thirst when the need strikes them.

We face a future that is going to become increasingly dominated by the digital. This will open new possibilities for RPG gaming. But my suspicion is that it will also further bolster traditional, analogue pursuits - like sitting down at a table with pen and pencil and some dice in order to key a dungeon or hexmap.

Friday 18 March 2022

[Review] Rackham Vale (and the Four Eras of OSR Publishing)

OSR-adjacent Indie RPG publishing has come a long way since 2008, and has I think passed through four different eras which are quite distinct - albeit with considerable temporal overlapping between them.

The first was the DIY era, in which people were simply putting out material as hobbyists, and the emphasis was almost entirely on content over style. Think the original Carcosa; Raggi's original Random Esoteric Creature Generator; ScraPatrick's original Deep Carbon Observatory; probably Stonehell. A grungy and unpretentious aesthetic - this stuff didn't need to self-consciously go out of its way to look as though it had been printed out and stapled together in somebody's basement; it was only a baby step removed from precisely that.

The second was, for want of a better term, the FLAILSNAILS era, which I think coincided with the early explosion of interest in G+. Characterised by reliance on POD outlets (though not exclusively), the material produced here was very MS-Wordy - still amateurish, but with a higher level of emphasis on looking 'polished', and often with good art supplementing the text. I suppose Yoon-Suin fell into this camp, as would Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Vornheim, maybe the original Into the Odd and the early Kevin Crawford books.

The third era is that of the first Blockbusters - when Kickstarter really came to supplant POD options. Maze of the Blue Medusa, A Red and Pleasant Land, Veins of the Earth; many of the works produced in that ScraPatrick-Zak-Raggi confluence, but also many stemming from the Hydra Cooperative and other such groupings. This was an era of game-raising in terms of productive values and art, but also cost - one in which creators began to aspire to produce books that would look good on a bookshelf, or even a coffee table.

We are now in a fourth era, one characterised by a great proliferation of semi-professional material, in which a combination of customer expectation, healthy competition, experience, good-practice sharing and mimicry has raised standards in production to a level that often meets, and sometimes surpasses, the quality of major industry players in the 1990s. It is now the case that one can very easily find books, sold by their creators, that look better than the average TSR 2nd-edition era splatbook. Whether the quality of content has kept pace with developments in the field of design is another question.

Rackham Vale is in many ways an indication of how far we've come. Produced off the back of Kickstarter last year, it bills itself as a volume of 'fantasy adventure from the art of Arthur Rackham', and in terms of how it looks and feels it is streets ahead of what any of us were even daring to dream about in 2008. The art (admittedly most of it in the public domain) is beautifully integrated with the text; the layout is sound; the book has sidebars and inserts and lovely little decorative motifs. It flips nicely. It is pleasant to hold and touch. It is packed with tables and charts, so that there is precious little wastage of paper or, really, any empty space at all. I have slight misgivings about the use of black text, sometimes in quite a small typeface, against a grey background. But aside from that, the book is an absolute exemplar of modern OSR-inflected design.

If Vale demonstrates the advances that have been made in terms of style, though, it also demonstrates how comparatively difficult it is to make similar leaps in terms of content. Which is not to say for a moment that the content of the book is not satisfying. It is wonderfully evocative of the mood of Rackham's art. It is full of imaginative flourish and dripping with fairy tale charm. It is not just a valuable resource for imagining a Rackham-esque world, but really for any kind of setting influenced by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, William Morris or similar. The writing is solid. It has brilliantly usable monsters and lovely ideas. 

The standard, in other words, is high. But I find myself noticing that improvements in the quality of content across the industry have not quite kept pace with improvements in production values. This is perhaps to be expected, as it is true of almost literally every field of artistic and creative endeavour, and it would not be fair to criticise Rackham Vale as a consequence. I do find myself wondering, though, where the next genuinely transformative leap will take place with respect to the substance of all of this stuff we're making. Where do we go next, after "random tables are your friend" and "sandboxes are good"?

There are also a few areas in which I think Rackham Vale could be improved. An experienced DM would know how to use the material in the book. But an inexperienced one, I think, would not. The manner in which everything is presented is a little breathless, and would be improved by a page-long introduction at the beginning: here is how to use this volume. Likewise, individual sections (the faction map in particular) would benefit from more explanation - particularly deploying examples - regarding their use. The creators put a lot of energy into filling every space in their zine with usable material, and that's grand - but it is always worth taking the time to arrange things in such a way that somebody relatively new to DMing could see, explicitly, how to get from the pages of the book to good sessions at the table.

Overall, Rackham Vale looks lovely and has charming and imaginative content. It goes some distance toward filling the "fairy tale" void at the heart of the OSR. In those terms alone it is worth seeking out. 3 3/4 becs des corbins

[Rackham Vale is available for a variety of prices and formats. As a disclaimer, I was sent a free copy for review.]

Monday 14 March 2022

The Deep and Wondrous Complexity of the World

One of my addictions - perhaps the most profound and difficult to break - is going on forays through wikipedia, beginning on the entry for something I'm interested in (in this case, the Chechen language) and then following links to whatever catches my eye, so as to end up on, say, the ancient kingdom of Colchis.

These expeditions across time and space never fail to reinforce just how complicated human history is - how many layers upon layers of politics, ethnicity, language and culture we have laid across the surface of the world.

Take Colchis, for example. Thought to be "the earliest Georgian formation", it was perhaps populated by "early Kartvelian tribes", but there are also many Abkhaz, Scythian, Anatolian, Iranian, and Greek place names, and wikipedia tells us that "any of these groups could have constituted the ruling class". One of its major settlements, Discourias (modern Sukhumi, in Abkhazia/Georgia), was founded by Greek settlers in the 6th century BC; "the city and its surroundings were remarkable from the number of languages spoken in its bazaars" (between 70 and 300), and it was a major centre of commerce between the Greeks and the ancient Colchian tribes (for which, naturally, there is a separate entry on wikipedia). 

Reading the history of Discourias itself reinforces the point. It was a major supporter of Mithridates VI of Pontus in his struggle against the Roman Republic; it eventually became part of the Roman Empire but was demolished so as to avoid its capture by Sasanians. It was then restored by the Byzantines but sacked by the Arabs in the 8th century AD, before ultimately being restored again by the Kings of Abkhazia and then flourishing during the Georgian Golden Age as a major centre of trade with Genoa. Occupied by the Ottomans, changing hands between Abkhazians and Mingrelians, and it was then stormed during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in 1810. During the 20th century it saw war, revolution and ethnic cleansing; its 2003 census lists Abkhazians, Armenians, Estonians, Georgians, Greeks, Russians and Ukrainians among its population.

A cursory knowledge of the history of the world reveals it to be of such complexity, variety and interest that no fantasy setting could ever be its match in richness or fascination. One is also reminded when reading it of Voltaire's maxim that "History is only the patter of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots coming up from below". Empires rise and fall, each leaving behind them yet more intriguing detritus for us to pick through. 

Friday 11 March 2022

Russian Inspiration

It goes without saying that Russia's invasion of Ukraine violates international law, not to mention morality, and I feel desperately sorry for everybody swept up in these events. But there is brewing in the West a bizarre kind of performative Russophobic theatre (not to mention a LARPish belligerent frenzy) that only serves to demonstrate that human beings are as irrational in our purportedly rationalistic modernity as we have ever been. We are really just where we were in 1914, smashing up shops owned by people with German-sounding names, renaming 'German Shepherds' Alsatians, and gathering together to boo at posters of the Kaiser. 

Orchestras firing conductors or opera singers for failing to be sufficiently publicly anti-Putin is itself like something out of the McCarthy era; banning innocent Russian teenagers from playing ice hockey or 20-year old concert pianists from performing or Russian cat breeders from participating in competitions simply by dint of being Russian is even worse; but what can one say about Cardiff Symphony Orchestra's decision to stop playing Tchaikovsky, London Science Museum closing an exhibit about the Trans-Siberian Railway, or somebody at a university finding it appropriate to try to cancel Dostoevsky? It would be charitable to call it simple bigotry. It's a bandwagon of pig ignorance and lunacy. 

The real world isn't "four legs good, two legs bad". The real world isn't one in which subjecting everything Russian to a Two Minutes Hate causes the Ukrainian war effort to be psychically bolstered. The real world isn't Twitter.

The real world is one inhabited by people with different cultures but a shared humanity: every culture sheds light on the human experience in a different and valuable way, and the exclusion of high art from the world on its being rooted in the wrong culture is philistinism of the most pernicious kind. High art is a bridge between cultures, allowing us to see our humanity in new ways, and it is doubly important during time of conflict to remember this.

In defence of that principle, and as a tweak to the nose of the Cardiff Symphony Orchestra in particular, some inspiration from Russian high art for RPGs:


It begins and ends, in many ways, with The Firebird - an evil wizard who keeps his soul in an egg, a summonable magic bird that inflicts its foes with an 'infernal dance'; how more D&D could you get?

But you could just as well do with The Rite of Spring, which is the ballet equivalent of a Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany story, all naked cultist dancers and human sacrifice in the time-before-time:

And then there's his Chant de Rossignol, which is one of the finest pieces of orientalist art ever produced - like listening to the symphonic equivalent of the Jin Ping Mei; it was a huge inspiration for Yoon-Suin:


Do you like brooding orchestral pieces that are not only called The Isle of the Dead, but which sound like people approaching a literal Isle of the (Un)dead in order to explore it?

Or how about the Vespers, if you're in the mood for other-worldly grandeur and awe in the genuine sense of the word?


Night on the Bald Mountain, anyone? Whether as animated by Disney or otherwise? I mean, it's quite literally about a witches' sabbath:

And then there's the orchestral Pictures at an Exhibition, featuring reflections on the themes of 'The Gnome', 'The Old Castle', 'The Tomb', the 'Hut on Hen's Legs', and 'The Great Gate of Kiev':


Prince Igor fighting off the barbarian hordes?

In the Steppes of Central Asia, which conjures a distant and wondrous landscape better than any piece of music I know?

But if classical music isn't your thing, of course, perhaps some paintings:






And I suppose if you really wanted to, you could go out and invest in Mythic Russia.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

The MegaProject: Foxes and Hedgehogs

People come in one of two types. There are people who have the inclination to focus on getting really good at one activity in a very meaningful way. And there are people whose interests are comparatively broad but shallow. Specialists and generalists. And it's hard for one to become the other and vice versa.

By my nature I am a generalist. I know a bit about a lot of things. I'm the kind of person to read a single volume history of the Crimean War and then skip to one on the Cambodian Genocide, rather than to 'deep dive' into all of mankind's knowledge about one subject area. I've never found anything, either in my professional life or my leisure time, that could occupy my attention for long enough to become an obsession. My attention flits between many interests. And I have always been jealous of the kind of person who can plow one furrow so deeply that they can sow within it gold. 

To steal from Isaiah Berlin, and to do damage to his concept, we are either foxes or hedgehogs. We know many things, or we know one big thing. This is also true of our creative lives. Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe were foxes, in that they wrote many different works that were ostensibly unrelated, or only loosely so, and in many genres (although, as with any writer, if you get to know their respective oeuvres well enough, you can begin to think of them as each having a single, hedgehoggish theme). JRR Tolkien and Lois McMaster Bujold were/are hedgehogs, writing about basically one thing - one great story - in vast depth throughout the course of their lives. 

Being a fox, my natural tendency as a DM is therefore to want to run many different campaigns in many different settings, rather than run a single campaign in a single world over the course of decades. But I am very envious of those who can achieve the latter. I would very much love to create a megaproject of my own.

What is a megaproject? Some examples that spring to mind:

  • Mapping and keying an entire world (Iron Man version: doing it at the scale of 1 mile per hex)
  • Slowly and painstakingly drawing a megadungeon map on a 30m roll of drawing paper
  • Creating many modules constructing a vast 'implied' campaign setting from the ground up
  • Detailing the contents of one city, a la City State of the Invincible Overlord, down to the very last single inhabitant
  • Tekumel

The people who can really pull off megaprojects are rare and special indeed. If you possess that gift - don't waste it.

Tuesday 1 March 2022

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (5) - Galeb Duhr and Giant Bombardier Beetle

As spiders who wait unmoving and noiseless the Gods are in perfect stillness as Sleep approaches their glade. No suppressed chuckle from the Droll Knave; not the merest hiccup from the Skurtch; not even the faintest drip of salt water from the belly of the Trident-Bearer betrays them. Sleep is blind, but Sleep can hear so well that he can even detect the motions of thought itself. The Gods must wait unthinking for him to pass, as stones on a hillside sit dumbly through the winter. 

He creeps. His feet pad softly on dewy grass. He sniffs. This way and that. As though swaying his head from side to side like a coursing hound in search of scent. Merely to look on him is to be taken; the Gods hold their eyes shut tightly. Not a cough. Not a wheeze. Not a blink nor a breath. They wait until he circles about their glade, and feel the sun's rays grow warm; by the time he has passed, the light of morning is beginning to gleam through closed eyelids. 

Finally the sounds of his movement recede and it is Lap-Laz who speaks first. "Well, brothers and sisters! He is gone. Do we continue?" He drinks from his apricot brandy and dispels anxiety with a belch. "There are many yet to join battle."

Relieved, the Gods crowd once more around the purple. One already stands at the left of the blanket: tall, slender, with long grey feathered wings and tail iridescent and gleaming in the morning sun. Cacomantis, the yellow-footed, black-billed Cuckoo King, whose soft voice has yet to call out in the dawn's games. Now is his time: he unfurls a wing on the blanket and then withdraws it to reveal six giant iridescent green beetles arranged in a line upon the cloth. "These are mine," he declares. "I welcome a challenge."

The Gods murmur their appreciation; Sleep is forgotten. "I will challenge!" calls out the sonorous voice of Hexaich, the River Mother, her hippopotamus head reared in pride, her dozen breasts leaking milk down her belly. She casts three pebbles onto the blanket; they all bounce once, then twice, then come to a rest. Each, as though rousing itself from sleep, sprouts first arms, then legs, and then a grimacing maw beneath tired and mournful eyes. Galeb duhr, resentful of being wakened, and sorrowful at their own vast age. They fixes their misery upon their foes.

Their foes strike first. The beetles lurch forward, spasmodic but fast, and fling themselves upon the rock-men. Mandibles slice and crush, tearing off hunks of rubble; one of the galeb duhr is cracked and gravely weakened, while another loses many fragments of stone-flesh, spraying like grey tears across the purple. The Gods applaud at the resumption of violence - "That's the way!" yells the Skurtch. "Straight at it!" - and Lap-Laz cannot help himself from blurting out, "An upset is on the cards!" 

But the galeb duhr's misery now turns to anger. Stone fists pound and swing, cracking carapace like thin clay; it shatters in shards of glimmering green. Beetle bodies jerk and flap amidst ichorous ruin - four are dead, and one of the remainder is sorely wounded. In an instant the battle seems won and lost. Hexaich throws her head back and squeezes jets of milk from her udders in the excitement of impending victory; it squirts in great gushes across the crowd and they cackle and shriek in delighted drunken disgust. For a moment all is chaos of laughter and shouting as they roll and caper on the grass in exaggerated horror; the fight is briefly forgotten until the Elder Sister, her face flushed, her eyes sparkling and stern, cries out "Silence! Children! The fight is not yet over! Remember decorum!" 

And certainly it is not. The beetles have earned their name as bombardiers. Both those left alive turn and with deafening blasts spew stinging clouds of steaming, acrid bile at their foes. Each is seared and scarred by the burning sprays, and one is sent reeling, stunned, to slump down to its backside like a sullen, confounded toddler. Hope are raised afresh that the underdog will triumph - Lap-Laz, now carried about by the Droll Knave by piggyback, pours apricot brandy down his gullet and calls out, "Six legs good!" while others among the Gods begin to drum an impromptu rhythm on tree trunks, gourds and bowls to accompany his yells.

But there the contest brutally ends itself before the chant can really gain its momentum. Wounded as they are, the galeb duhr are not to be deterred from visiting their melancholy on their foes. They rend the two last beetles apart and the fight is over.

Cacomantis has been watching affairs aloof. He wipes a drop of milk from his left wingtip with the right, and sniffs. "That was poorly executed. I apologise they offered so little."

Hexaich shrugs. "Life is strong. Unlife is stronger."