Wednesday 11 May 2022

Recommend Me Books, Part 347

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

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

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

Tuesday 10 May 2022

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

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

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

So, the tasks break down as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 5 May 2022

So What Is Behind Gently Smiling Jaws?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Running Modules As Written

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 3 May 2022

Stories Are Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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