Thursday, 31 March 2022
Wednesday, 30 March 2022
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: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thirdbluewizard/in-the-hall-of-the-third-blue-wizard
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
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
Monday, 14 March 2022
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
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
- 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
Tuesday, 1 March 2022
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."